A night in Pleiney

If you go to the Aosta Valley and follow the signs for the Great Saint Bernard’s Pass, you’ll get to one of the region’s lesser-frequented valleys, the Great Saint Bernard Valley. It’s the valley where the wind known as the coumba freida in the local dialect blows cold in winter, and the temperature remains cool and fresh in summer, always welcome when you’re arriving from the summer heat Milan. The pass above links Italy with Switzerland. It’s on the route of the Via Francigena, the pilgrims’ way which starts in Canterbury in the UK and finishes in Rome. The Great Saint Bernard’s Hospice up there on the Swiss side was originally begun by Augustine monks to provide food and shelter for the pilgrims. They also started to breed the famous Saint Bernard dogs. The dogs were used to carry loads, and later to help in mountain rescues. It’s quite possible that you’ll see one if you go up to the pass.

Saint-Rhémy-en-Bosses is the last village before you go through the tunnel or over the pass and into Switzerland, and famous for its local ham known as Jambon de Bosses. We stayed there in a bed and breakfast called Nuit à Pleiney. It’s past the town hall and church, at the end of the road through the valley. Saint-Rhèmy-en-Bosses is split into various hamlets, each a group of houses where people used to keep live and keep their animals. Nuit à Pleiney offers a night in the hamlet of Pleiney. I suggest you stay for more, and give yourself chance to unwind, far from the crowds of more popular tourist destinations.

Sara Clerici and her husband Marco were familiar with the area as they’d spent many years holidaying there. Then they bought an old rural house and spent seven years renovating it. It was a labour of love, where authenticity and respect for the past was key. The whole building has the original thick stone walls and wooden features, and even the marks from the bread oven in the breakfast room can still be seen on one of the walls. The builders wanted to clean them off, but Sara refused. Each corner of the building tells a part of the building’s history, and Sara didn’t want to erase any of it.

The result is that the bed and breakfast fits beautifully within its original context, both in relation to its neighbouring houses and the mountains. There are five rooms each with their own private bathroom, including two family rooms where one has the option of adding a fifth bed. The accommodation is bed and breakfast with jams and cakes all made by Sara. An evening aperitivo with local products and wines is available upon request.

There’s also an apartment that sleeps four, and where we stayed. The open plan downstairs bedroom and living room has a bed settee which functions as extra sleeping space. Upstairs is the kitchen under the eaves, while outside at the back there’s an outdoor eating area. It’s the early mornings I remember, waking up and going up into the kitchen to make coffee, throwing open the windows and hearing the sound of the river and the birds. If there was anything I needed post-lockdown, it was this.

The garden offers space for outside relaxation. Whether you choose to take your morning coffee outside or enjoy a herbal tea whilst watching the stars shining in the blackest of nights, Nuit offers the peace and quiet to re-connect with nature. There’s also a sauna, relaxation room and hot tub in the garden to enhance your experience.

Sara works with Carlotta and Gerard of Rimedi Noa, a holistic health service which is offered on site. Whilst other such facilities might take place in spa or beauty complexes, this is all done outside in the garden, which adds to its charm. I met them one afternoon. I had a chat with Carlotta about food, health and general well-being. Of course I was being assessed but it felt like a chat as I was sitting there in my deck chair in the garden and was able to relax into the whole experience. The same thing happened when Gerard gave me cranio sacral therapy in the wooden relaxation room in the garden. I felt like I floated through the rest of the day.

The fact that Nuit is on a main route means that it’s a very convenient base from which to explore the surrounding area, but also to visit other areas within the Aosta Valley. There’s no driving up and down winding mountain roads every time you want to go anywhere, and yet you still get all the benefits of being up in the mountains at just over 1600 m above sea level. Saint Oyen and Etroubles are both neighbouring villages, each of which deserve a visit. Saint Oyen produces delicious cooked ham of the same name, and Etroubles was voted one of Italy’s most beautiful villages. Don’t worry about taking your car there if you don’t want to. The beauty of the visit lies in walking through the valley from Nuit to get there, although you’d probably want to drive to one of the restaurants in the evening.

This was the first place we visited post-lockdown and I was curious to know what it would be like in our new age of social distancing. It was surprisingly easy, at least for the visitor. Masks are obligatory indoors along with the rest of Italy, and when you enter the breakfast room to go indoors, there’s a no-touch hand gel dispenser outside. Breakfast is served either indoors at the required distance or outside in the garden. Generally wherever we went, we found people just following the rules and getting on with it. And of course, being in the mountains, it’s difficult to feel crowded. If you’re nervous about getting out there for whatever reason, this is certainly one of the quieter mountain locations.

The mountains have the ability to nourish and regenerate, providing a contact with nature like no other, or at least that’s what I’ve always felt personally. If you’re looking for a place to get away from it all and immerse yourself in nature and peace, Nuit à Pleiney could be exactly what you need.

Nuit à Pleiney, http://www.pleiney.it You can also find them on Facebook @nuitapleiney and on Instagram @nuit_a_pleiney.

Photos: Rachael Martin

An hour from Milano

When lockdown was lifted, it all felt like someone’s idea of a joke as it rained for what felt like an eternity.

Then it stopped, and the heat arrived.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with Italy, and in this case northern Italy, there is heat and there is northern Italian heat. It’s the muggy, relentless kind where the air stands still, and the mountains play hide and seek under the haze of a lost memory. It’s heat that induces lakeside aperitivos in settings that have appeared in Hollywood films (the lake being Lake Como) and dinners in squares in places that someone knows. It’s that all-Italian summer with a heavy dose of dolce vita, home to the beautiful adorned in beautiful clothes and sunglasses.

Today though, I’m the one who’s in a haze, mainly because I was up gardening until the early hours on my balcony. There was a breeze, and besides it was nice just to chill with my son and make trips to the garage at midnight to find things we really needed. Gardening on my balcony is one of my joys in life that goes with planning trips around what I’m going to eat and driving 300 kilometres to see what’s round the corner.

Today I have a brand new baby tomato which is almost as exciting as the baby guinea pigs which were born during lockdown. We never even realised she was pregnant, just walked in one evening and there was another little guinea pig. We called him Luce, or light, because that’s what we needed at the time. Another two arrived about a month later. And there you have it, the miracle of guinea pig birth or what happens when you thought you bought two girls and mother nature shows you that you didn’t.

I shall be launching a new series here soon called An hour from Milano. Milano because for those of us who live here Milan can never be anything but Milano. It’s a bit like Rome can only be Roma, and always with attitude.

I’ll be exploring places that you can get to that are – you guessed it – an hour (or so) from Milan. I’ll be giving the local lowdown on those places I’ve got to know during the twenty and more years I’ve lived here, and others I’ve always wanted to visit but never quite got round to.

I began my travels around Italy, getting on and off trains. Shortly afterwards, I met an Italian boyfriend (now husband) who introduced me to mountains, food in mountain refuges and flying up and down mountain passes in an Opel Corsa in the early hours of the morning. The Opel Corsa is long gone but the love of all the rest is still the same.

Check back soon for more.

Photo: View of Milan from the Brianza countryside, Rachael Martin

Hello again…

The last time I wrote this was almost two years ago after coming back from the UK when the world was still as we knew it. Two years later and we’ve lived through a global pandemic.

The first place to be affected in Europe was the northern region of Lombardy in Italy where I live. On Friday 21 February we learned that a man in the town of Codogno just south of Milan had been diagnosed with coronavirus. By Saturday afternoon, there were about fifty cases. On Sunday morning Giorgio Armani announced he would show without guests. It was Milan Fashion Week and the city was brimming with the fashion world. At lunchtime news began to come through that the regional government of Lombardy was planning to close the schools. By Sunday evening I was looking at emptying shelves in my local supermarket.

On Monday 24 February, the kids didn’t go back to school. Our lives changed, all our lives changed as the coronavirus spread its way through our worlds. On Saturday 7 March Lombardy and 14 other Italian provinces went into lockdown. Two days later Italian prime minister Giuseppe Conte announced that the whole of Italy would go into lockdown. Days merged into one as the numbers of the dead rose, each a world of grief and pain. Two weeks later we watched images of army trucks taking the dead out of the city of Bergamo. On the evening of Friday 27 March a lone Pope Francis conducted mass in Saint Peter’s Square, a symbol of national and personal grief that many of us are still trying to process. There are towns and cities which have lost generations, families who are grieving several family members. For some it is still not over.

Then on 3 June Italy opened its regional and national borders once more. Lockdown is over and we’re all now learning how to move forward in the era of social distancing. When we went into lockdown, I’d just finished a book about fashion in Milan. It should have been published this year but like many things got postponed, and will be published next Spring.

In the meantime I’ll be writing here again, so check back soon for more travel, food and culture and various other bits about this beautiful country I call home.

Photo: Venice in the rain, Rachael Martin

Home, memory, sand in your sandwiches

And then we came home again, after a summer that included our usual trips to Spain and the UK, via the two month mark of the three month Italian school holidays when we all started to feel like it was time to go back to school. Yet the holidays continued, and the UK was a round of the Great British seaside and visits to old friends, a recall of memory, of tastes mixed with smell and images that roll by like some home video that was never made and appears in snapshots in mostly forgotten boxes.

We used to go to the North Sea coast when I was a girl. Staithes and Whitby, Runswick Bay, and the beach at Sandsend where the sands never seemed to end.  Sand in your sandwiches, sand in your hair. The crisp sandwiches that I barely remember when I was young, although I know they were there. I have a thing about crisp sandwiches now. Crisp sandwiches in the UK, crisp sandwiches on the beach on Spain because we wouldn’t be on the beach without crisp sandwiches. And the wind and the windbreaks. I’d forgotten about the windbreaks until this summer. That part definitely happened, never being on the beach without windbreaks.

When I was a girl we’d stay in a cottage on the cliff in Cowbar near Staithes, walk down the hill and over the bridge and there was the shop selling the candy floss at the end. There was always the candy floss at the end, and a café selling crab sandwiches that I’ve never really liked. We went to Scarborough this year and after eating fish and ships on the front and watching the boats, my husband said to me: “Why didn’t you tell me they had crab sandwiches?” Because I never thought. Crab sandwiches were never a part of it for me. Yet now it’s always fish and chips in newspaper or more often on plastic trays.

We ate fish and chips out of newspaper one summer, the summer my mother died. The boys were only little and they thought it was wonderful, this sitting and having a picnic of fish and chips in the garden. Or rather sitting and eating fish and chips out of newspaper on the step. And in a different garden, as by this time she’d become so ill. She was riddled with cancer and we were riddled with stomach bugs so had to stay away.

This summer we were in my mother’s garden once more. This summer I was in my mother’s kitchen once more, knowing that this summer could well be the last time. Grief poured out. You think that it will somehow stop or heal. That’s when it tricks you, sneaks up on you, behind you, throws itself in your face. It’s the cruelty of grief, the cruelty of illness, of loss and ultimately our own mortality.

And then we were home again, and it was September.

Every year it comes around, and every year I can feel that usual tug between feeling so grateful that we’re all back to our own lives, and nostalgia at the realisation that these times will never come again.

So yesterday we made a cake, because some days are just for making cakes. I was reminded of Joan Didion in “The Year of Magical Thinking,” of how after losing her husband she talks of learning to find meaning in the domestic, in the rituals, the food and the making of a home. She writes of how it mattered, of how it helped to stave off the rest.

And so yesterday we made a cake, and food and memory all rolled into one and we sat on our sofa and ate that cake.

Chicken dinners

The decorator had been in all week and we were living in that state of chaos which is slightly too much. Meals on the coffee table (or rather what serves as the coffee table which is actually my old university trunk) eventually lose their appeal. Or rather than losing their appeal, we’d got to the point where you couldn’t even get to the trunk anyway.

I needed to put a chicken in the oven. I desperately needed to put a chicken in the oven.

Chicken dinners have been a cornerstone of my life. Other meals have come and gone, but the good old chicken dinner has remained. It’s not just the oven that warms a home and the souls within it, it’s the constant. I can remember so many chicken dinners from my childhood, taste them, see the gravy as I pour it over. The chicken dinner I made last night was a rather more Italian compromise. One son delights in a chicken dinner, the other pulls a face. Hence the sausage.

It’s my own version of Nigella’s traybake, the one in Nigellissima, her take on Italian food. I say my own version, but this is really dependent on mood. Yesterday I got a packet of about 300g of Italian sausage, four chicken legs and a whole chicken breast. Add three whole cloves of garlic, and they need to be whole because they almost caramelise during the cooking, and if, like me, you love slow roasted garlic, use more. Drizzle with olive oil and lay about five sprigs of lemon thyme or ordinary thyme, whatever you have to hand. Of course the challenge is to manage to cook the chicken breast without it getting dry, so cook the sausages on top, and baste regularly. Then in another pan I put parboiled potatoes and carrots to roast in olive oil with rosemary sprigs. Putting them to roast raw just doesn’t create the right result. They will be roasted, but they won’t be proper roast potatoes, at least not in my book.

The chicken was slightly overdone in the end as I got sidetracked sorting out the bookcases. When you have a houseful of books, it’s a permanent quest. The only solution I ever find that works is to just buy more bookcases. More bookcases mean more books, although I have this fear that one day I will die amidst piles of unread books that, in turn, nobody will ever read.

The leftover chicken will be brought out again today, probably in sandwiches in thick crusty bread, although I have a recipe a friend gave me for some lovely soft milk bread that’s lying around that I might give a try. Baking my own bread is up there with the chicken dinners.

In which case I really should make some stuffing.

A tale of two lasagne

If we’re talking lasagne, then it’s a tale of two. The first is my mother’s from my childhood, when lasagne was a food of 80s dinners, along with the stir fried chicken that came from her copy of the St Michael Cookery Library’s Chinese Cooking. It was often made using dried lasagne verdi, and generally served with chips – the soft thick type that were browned at the edges, salad and garlic bread, and I have a vague recollection that coleslaw sometimes made an appearance. For years, this for me was lasagne. The second version is truly Italian, and comes from eating it for so many years at various Italian tables. There was once a version that included slices of boiled egg, made by a friend’s mother who came from Baslicata, because how you make your lasagne is often a sign of where you’re from. Lasagne with slices of boiled egg. Who’d have thought it could taste so good.
It was Sunday and I’d been listening to the Radio Four dramatisation of Claudia Roden: A Book of Middle Eastern Food. If you haven’t listened to it, do, because it’s a celebration of how food is a part of our culture and who we are. Food is connection and at times that can be everything, as is evident in Roden’s tales of how she left Egypt for Paris, and then for London, and lived out her exile. It’s often a way of creating home, and it matters.
It mattered as I stood in my kitchen and made meatballs that Saturday. It matters as I make pizza on a Wednesday night. Joan Didion sums it up when she speaks of how she learned to “find equal meaning in the repeated rituals of domestic life. Setting the Table. Lighting the candles. Building the fire. Cooking. All those souffles, all that crème caramel, all those daubes and albondigas and gumbos.” (The Year of Magical Thinking) She goes on: “These fragments I have stored against my ruins, were the words that came to mind then. These fragments mattered to me. I believed in them.”
And so off went my husband to look for dried lasagne verdi in the village where we live just north of Milan. He didn’t find it, came home and suggested we make it. “Make it?” The idea seemed almost absurd. You didn’t make fresh lasagne for this lasagne, you bought it in a packet. And it was thick, and crispy around the edges where the sauce hadn’t covered the lasagne.
When I put it on the table, the reaction was interesting. Lasagne is always a winner in our house. But lasagne with salad? On the same plate? It was breaking the laws of Italian food, and Italian food is a serious business. Lasagne is a primo – a first course – and eaten alone. My husband didn’t even go there. Lasagne first, salad second. Neither did my elder son, although that was because salad is green and green rarely features on his plate. My younger son copied me. Lasagne, salad and a wedge of garlic bread. Then he started eating and a divide began to appear between lasagne and salad. There was no way his salad was getting soggy with béchamel sauce.

It made me smile somewhat. My lasagne belonged to a time of stir-fried chicken in oyster sauce and chicken in a basket when we were on holiday at the seaside and went for a pub lunch. It represented the foreign, if not the exotic. In theory it’s the same dish, yet it will never be the same dish as the lasagne I’ve eaten and learned to make in Italy just as the lasagne I eat in Italy will be the lasagne of my childhood. Unless I cook it.  Maybe it’s a dish that for the moment still belongs to the UK. It belongs to dinners in my mother’s kitchen when we go to visit my dad, only now I’m the one that’s cooking it. It fits there. Although as I write this, I can’t help thinking that one day it will fit here too. When there is no longer any context for it, it will matter very much.

don't touch my lasagne






Memories will be made of meatballs

A friend asked me for the recipe for my meatballs. “How do you make yours?” she asked. “I love to hear how other people make them.”

Good question. My meatballs are generally recipe-less. They’re usually a mix of the meat I’ve bought and what I have in the fridge. The other day I made them with about half a kilo of Italian sausage meat, some finely chopped thyme, leftover pecorino (a smallish chunk that I blitzed in the food processor) and the usual tomato passata. A note about tomato passata. Once you’ve tried it, you may never go back to tinned tomatoes.

A friend’s Tuscan mother swears by tomato passata and won’t use anything else. It makes for a richer sauce, and I assure you once you’re converted you’ll find it difficult to go back. Although naturally it has to be good quality Italian passata, as some passatas are better than others. I now have a tomato passata fetish that consists of various bottles of various types all lined up in the cupboard. The only passatas I draw the line at is the ones where they add the herbs. Don’t. Add them fresh yourself.

Today I had three boys for lunch. “Shall I make meatballs with pasta?” The response was an unanimous yes. So today’s version was about 300g of beef with 400g of Italian sausage, and some semi hard goat’s cheese that got thrown into the mixture and oozed lazily out into the sauce on cooking. I’d also added a softly browned leek, some parsley and chives chopped up using a mezzaluna to make their presence as least obvious as possible because that’s generally what you end up doing with kids. Oh, and some breadcrumbs. And for breadcrumbs I mean four slices of common or garden white sliced bread that were also blitzed and added to the mixture.

In the meantime I heated up my jar of tomato passata with a good slug of olive oil. Normally I put in a touch of onion soffrito, sometimes also a finely chopped carrot but  today I didn’t have any onions or carrots, hence the leeks in the meatballs. Besides, in this way, my kids would actually eat leeks.

“Do you like the meatballs, boys?”

“They’re okay.” Okay?

“They’ve got a funny taste.”

So that’ll be the leeks.

I write this as I have the rest of the meatballs simmering away with another jar of passata, slug of olive oil, a couple of meatballs and some borlotti beans thrown in for good measure. All to be eaten with my husband when I manage to get the kids in bed at a reasonable time, and we sit on the sofa watching our favourite programmes on the Italian cookery channel Gambero Rosso. Some couples watch Netflix, me and my husband watch cookery programmes and have done for as long as I can remember. There’s a TV chef called Giorgone (Giorgio Barchiesi) who believes in true rustic Italian food including lard and anything that contains about a thousand calories. His recipes are the type of things I want to eat. As for the borlotti beans, they remind me of Tuscany and Umbria and places like that, and last weekend we were in Arezzo and I was eating beans on bruschetta.

A word about the photo of the little hand and meatballs. Simply because one day little hands will have grown into big hands, and meatballs will have become a memory.


Comfort comes in the shape of meatballs

I had this phase once where just about every Friday night I’d make chicken risotto, and every Friday night my son would curl up his nose and wail “that’s not risotto!” because where we live risotto may be very popular, just not with chicken. So I’d end up giving him pasta and ragù instead, whereas the other one would just sit in front of the TV with me, both with our bowls and eating it with a spoon. I can’t remember where my husband featured in all this – possibly he didn’t – but for ages it was my favourite comfort food. It felt virtuous somehow, eating chicken with rice and naturally with all the goodness.

Today it was meatballs. I have this book on loan from the library – a Slow Food touring guide to regional Italian cookery. Meatballs – Bologna. Oh yes please. It’s the kind of thing I can dream of. The last time I was in Bologna I went to Trattoria Anna Maria near the university and ate what are known as “assaggi” or tastes. Of course the ravioli were wonderful, but it was the fresh tagliatelle with ragù that stole the show. I’d been to a pastificio – or shop where they made fresh pasta. The woman there was telling me how she makes her ragù, assuring me that the Bolognese ragù was by far the best. She commented on my northern Italian accent and told me I hadn’t eaten ragù unless I’d eaten it here.

“Of course nowadays we’re no longer working in the fields so we don’t need all this rich food,” she said, giving me her healthy version ragù. I just sat there and smiled and said nothing. I didn’t tell her my husband often puts half sausage meat in ours for extra flavour, which isn’t exactly traditional but tastes so good all the same. If you’re going to make something something like tagliatelle with ragù, then surely this isn’t the time to skimp? Eat it less would be my own theory, but at least when you do eat it, eat it well.

The tagliatelle with ragù at the trattoria was the type of thing to wave your arms with excitement over, it was that good. Signora Anna Maria wasn’t there that day, and neither was she the other week when I rang in advance, but I’m hoping one day she will be. There are stories behind her tagliatelle and ragù, and I want to hear them.

Of course the meatballs I started making according to the trattoria in Bologna from the book didn’t quite follow the recipe. It’s the type of cooking that starts from sitting and reading a few cookery books, starting to make something and realising that you don’t actually have all the necessary ingredients. So you make it up, substituting as you go along. I started rolling out the meatballs in my hands, and then I thought I really want a bit of parsley in these, possibly because I’d just been repotting coriander. They all got mixed together again, this time with the finely chopped parsley. It was the link with the herbs. And the onion was substituted by a clove of garlic in the sauce, whole to be taken out, merely added for flavour.

There once was a time when I made meatballs with a friend up a mountain pass about twenty years ago. I’m not sure how many cloves of garlic went in the sauce, but I remember our Italian friends’ reactions. Needless to say I learned that you never presume that Italians like garlic, especially when you’re in the north, although really that’s a story for another day.


Pesto(ish) for a rainy day

So after Spring made a very brief appearance, in particular yesterday which gave us a day in which we all breathed a sigh of relief from the awful weather we seem to be having recently, today it is cold, grey, raining and utterly miserable. Burian 2 is on its way, or the beast from the east is making a comeback, as they call it in the UK. It’s the kind of day where the only real option is to just stay at home and stay in our pyjamas, hence the Saturday morning cooking.

Not that there was actually that much cooking involved. Today I made pesto with a handful of parsley that I’ve recently planted on the balcony. Pesto literally means made with a pestello or pestle. It’s one of those things that might sound complicated but is actually ridiculously easy. Once you’ve made it you’ll never want to buy the supermarket stuff again.

Pesto literally means made with a pestello or pestle, although I used a hand-held blender.  I blitzed the handful of parsley that I’d cut up with scissors beforehand with half a large garlic clove, about 50g of ready-peeled almonds and added a good slug of olive oil, enough to coat the pasta smoothly rather than clog it up. I then mixed in a couple of tablespoonfuls of finely grated pecorino romano or, to be more accurate, I put the cheese in a mini blitzer that does this in seconds.

If you do blitz it, resist the temptation to do it too finely. I personally prefer it when it’s got more texture to it. And do taste as you go along. If you fancy a bit more cheese, add it. If you want to mix in a few more ground almonds at the end, do. And if you don’t happen to have any pecorino romano sitting in your fridge, use parmesan or any other hard cheese. My neighbour is an amazing cook who lives to the rule that she would never go to the shop just for one ingredient, so don’t feel you have to either. She just substitutes with anything suitable she has in her fridge, and experiments. Besides, this isn’t the real pesto. You have to go to Liguria for that. And this is also NOT Ligurian pesto, as Ligurian pesto is made with basil that’s grown on the sunny shores there, and if you were to suggest to anyone who lives there that this were called pesto they would object, and rightly so. Ligurian pesto is food of the gods. I know this every time I’ve eaten it there. I once tried it once at a friend’s vineyard. Her grandmother had made it, gnocchi swimming in the most heavenly pesto I have ever tasted. No, this is not pesto. This is name pesto(ish). So please do not consider calling it pesto.

A final word about salt. I personally don’t add salt as I think the pecorino has enough flavour, but this is up to you. Then mix the pesto in with some rigatoni you’ve cooked in the meantime. Keep about a third of a cup of the cooking water as you’ll need this to help it bind. Although to be perfectly honest, today I forgot as they all came into the kitchen right at that moment, although it still turned out fine. Add the water very gradually and mix as you go along, as the last thing you want is watery pasta. You could also use any long pasta such as spaghetti or linguine but I’d run out so it was rigatoni instead. Sprinkle with ground almonds and more grated pecorino romano, a generous twist of ground black pepper, and lunch is served.

Dream of sunshine and Ligurian villages.





Slow travel in Tuscany, and anywhere

The last time I was in Rome, I had all these plans to visit all these places and then my son started vomiting the first morning we were there so we pretty much ate our way around Testaccio instead including a carbonara at Lo Scoppetaro restaurant that I know will become one of my lasting food memories. I always have all these plans to visit all these places, but life, as we know, never quite works out like that and unless you have the efficiency of a Girl Guide leader (which I don’t), well, it’s all just a surprise from here on folks. Besides, I never really know until I get there what we’re going to see. It all depends on how it works out, or doesn’t it?

Apparently, not for some. Some have travel itineraries that are so impressive and every trip becomes the successful completion of all the things they wanted to see, and do. Which I admire, but my own tend to depend on the moment, and if I’m with my kids, generally on them. It’s that getting somewhere and wanting to sit in the café in the square with my cappuccino and brioche and just breathe it all, just feel a place or possibly eat my way round a place. It’s what’s they call slow travel, although to be honest I’ve never known any real desire to do anything else. When I was younger I used to have this vision of middle age as being that most wonderful moment which would almost justify the fact that I want to go to the lake today and just sit and read my book and drink cappuccinos, just be, in a different place or new place and experience that relationship with place. Granted when I’m getting there it’s a very different story, that of what’s around the corner and if I have to drive another couple of hours, then that’s what I’ll do. Whatever the scenario, there’s little planning, and as someone once said to me: “Your kids never actually know what’s coming next, do they?” No, probably not.

I’m sure my kids will inform me what this actually meant as they get older. It will probably be accompanied by a “mum you were so mean, you never went to get our ice creams but sent us off by ourselves.” Yes, because a lot of time that happened to be in Spain, and when you want something, you will open your mouth and ask for it. In a different language. Linguistic need equals linguistic transaction. If there’s no need, chances are there won’t be much transaction, especially if you’re six. Lecture over.

In spite of the never knowing what’s coming next, I had a moment of maternal pleasure the other day over my younger son’s reply when I asked him if he wanted to go to Tuscany (five hours) or somewhere nearer. (And yes, I know I’m gloating but this has been my dream since they were born, so I’ll just enjoy the fruition of the said dream.) “Mum, if I have to travel two hours to see two little things, I’d rather travel five hours and go see something beautiful. Better five hours any day!” Of course, there are lots of beautiful places on our doorstep but he has vague recollections of a camping holiday in the Maremma which added to the appeal I think. So Tuscany – and more specifically, Arezzo – it will be. The downside is that we’re destined for another wave of rain and snow, although I’m sure we’ll find some suitable eating establishment to soften the blow.

I was thinking this morning about how I first went to Florence during the first year I was here in Italy and my over-riding memory was of eating sfogliatine in a bar near the pensione I stayed in. That and going late in the day to the Uffizi and sitting in the Botticelli room virtually alone. I think I found that hotel when I was in Florence in January, although it’s now twenty years ago so I could be wrong but the street felt similar. There was a bar on the corner as I remembered. I had breakfast this January morning in a different bar in the main square, although they didn’t have sfogliatine. What are sfogliatine, you might be asking. Heaven. Or rather little pleated pastries, almost like little fans and filled with crème patisserie, ricotta, nutella (naturally) and sometimes lemon cream or pistacchio.

I didn’t find the sfogliatine in Florence that day. I had to go to Rome for that, to a Neopolitan pasticceria in or near Testaccio as I remember. We’d been to try to get in to the Colosseum, but it was Sunday and the queues were horrific and in retrospect we should have known better. My elder son was flagging somewhat so mid afternoon we decided to go back to our little bed and breakfast in Testaccio. That was when we found the pasticceria. And that was when I found the sfogliatine and all those memories came rushing back of being a young woman in Florence who ate sfogliatine and hitchhiked from San Gimignano to Siena because she had to see Siena and it seemed like a good idea at the time. The guy dropped us in Poggibonsi – you can get a bus from here – and then we ended up in Siena during the Festa dell’Immacolata that takes place on the 8th December in a town that was dressed like the ultimate chocolate box. Several years later I would go back with two sleeping toddlers in the car and eat grapes from the vine that my husband had picked and look over at Siena once more. There was a wedding taking place, the Italian dream, and they all drove up, the bride in a vintage car that I don’t quite remember now. We all have our own Italian dreams.

Note to self: it’s time to go back to Siena.

Until that happens, here are a few postcards from Rome.

Skies like these in Testaccio


And the carbonara: rigatoni alla carbonara, or rigatoni pasta dressed in egg and guanciale.


Wild boar stew is part of my identity

When I told my family I was toying with the idea of being vegan or at least vegetarian, my younger son looked at me in that way he has when it’s obvious he thinks his mother cannot possibly be serious. “You’ll never manage it,” he pronounced.

Of course he was right. I can’t see myself becoming vegetarian either although I have noticed some differences. Rather than making any major decisions, it’s been more to do with making certain choices. If I’m going to eat cheese, I’d rather it be goat’s cheese and fresh. I no longer look for the grated parmesan for my pasta, unless that’s what we’re specifically having. I didn’t want mince ragù with my pasta the other day. I have this  dialogue going on in my head when I’m approaching meals. Is this vegan or vegetarian? I guess you could probably call it mindful eating, although believe me that sounds far worthier than it is. I do think more about what I want to eat though. We are what we eat as we all know in theory but may not necessarily always practice.

Then the other day I made wild boar ragù as the snow had started to fall again and the whole kitchen was lit up by the snow outside in that way that I’ve always loved. I was happy to cook it, unlike the fajitas the other day which became deconstructed fajitas as I decided I didn’t want the meat in them. Raw chicken just didn’t do it for me, although if I’m honest it hasn’t for a long while.

Wild boar on the other hand has memories. It reminds me of when I first came to Italy and spent several winters skiing every weekend in the mountains.  It was sitting round tables with – I want to say other young Italians – because time brings with it an altered state of identity and you gradually you start to wear the country in which you live. It involves going back to your home country and feeling like you don’t quite belong any more. And it involves feeling part of the country in which you’re living to the point that you’ve forgotten you didn’t always live here. Children helped in my case. Or rather, motherhood didn’t help at all before it did. And then what was originally a huge pull back to the UK gradually transformed into a this is home here and now.

Naturally – or possibly, naturally for me – food played its part. It was mountain food based upon stews, and polenta, always a dish of steaming polenta. Wild boar stew, venison stew, any stew, pizzoccheri and plates of sciatt on chicory. This was the place and this was its food, and through this a whole culture spoke.

I made the stew with a small jar of tomato passata because I have a friend whose Tuscan mum swears by it and says this always gives a richer flavour. It does. Brown a couple of carrots and onions in a casserole dish or pan that will go in the oven with a whole clove of garlic. Add the meat – about 1 kg. Then add five juniper berries, a bay leaf, a slug of red wine and a small bottle of good quality passata and it does have to be good quality because it really does make a difference. Then cook in a low oven until the meat starts to fall apart. Most Italian recipes will tell you to cook it on the hob for about an hour and a half but I always cook mine in the oven as it always turns out better for me that way. Another thing to note is that if you marinade the meat beforehand it takes away what Italians call that “wild taste”. It all depends on personal preference. If you do prefer a slightly sweeter taste then marinade the meat for 24 hours in enough red wine to cover it, a couple of bay leaves, about 5 juniper berries, a carrot and an onion. What’s important is that you throw this away before cooking, otherwise you’ve defeated the object.

This is a stew to be eaten with polenta or fresh pappardelle, the day after cooking though as the flavours will always improve.

Mountain passes optional, though highly recommended.




Cacciucco, or chickpea soup amidst the snow

Cacciucco, a fish soup associated with Tuscan coastal towns such as Livorno, Viareggio, and in my case memories of a camping holiday in Castiglione della Pescaia where I had these rather romantic visions of the good life in a tent until the people in the tent next to us started singing Carpenters songs. I have nothing against Carpenters songs, just not when they’re emanating from the tent next to me. (Long story, possibly for another day.) And it turned out I don’t really like camping quite as much as I thought I did. I like the idea, but the reality leaves me somewhat – err, uncomfortable. Airbeds don’t do much for a bad back.

Castiglione della Pescaia on the other hand is beautiful, as is the whole of the Maremma region, some of which is a natural park, and if you’re planning a trip to Tuscany it’s definitely an area to consider. Outside August though, which pretty much applies to any Italian holiday, if you can.

But back to the cacciucco. There’s also a chickpea version which would be a cacciucco di ceci rather than a cacciucco di pesci, and this is what I decide to make today. It felt ideal for the day as it’s snowed again, although the Big Snow forecast was nowhere as big as expected. “Mum, we have three centimetres of snow!!!” Precisely. I wasn’t planning to make cacciucco today but I’d spent the whole morning dreaming of Tuscan towns (and naturally Tuscan food) as we’re planning to go there at Easter. And so cacciucco it was.

As with most traditional recipes, there are many variations. One recipe I found said to use shallots, but as I didn’t have any, I just used a red onion. You could use half but I used a whole one because I love onion, chopped finely and lightly fried with a whole head of garlic. I didn’t chop the garlic as it was rather large and I think the trick with garlic is to use it to flavour without letting it overpower the whole recipe. (If in doubt, use it whole.) I then added two packets of chickpeas, having drained them first of their juices. Of course you can also add the juices, I just prefer not to. Then add a washed and chopped bunch of Swiss chard, a generous tablespoon of good quality tomato passata and cover with just enough water to cover the chickpeas. The Swiss chard will steam anyway. Add salt to taste, and simmer until the chard is cooked. Some recipes suggest you use stock instead of water but I didn’t as I didn’t have any fresh to hand, and it was still very tasty.

Drizzle the soup with olive oil and sprinkle with black pepper. You can choose to keep this vegan, or sprinkle with grated cheese, in which you case you would need a firm Tuscan pecorino if you can get it.

Ideally this should be served with toasted Tuscan bread that you can either serve with the soup ladled over (in which case the bread will go all squishy and effectively become part of the soup) or on the side. I ate mine with a wholemeal nut roll of the type that I’m pretty much addicted to at the moment.

Serve, and dream of Tuscan hills.