Cherry-picking in the Monferrato countryside

P1080687For several years our cherry trees in the Monferrato hills would not bear any fruit. They had been planted over a hundred years ago by my husband’s great grandfather. We had therefore all assumed that they were at the end of their lives. To our delight though, we were proved completely wrong and have ended up picking cherries by the basketload so far this summer!

During our first cherry-picking expedition, I noticed that the cherry trees bore different varieties of fruit and leaves. These relatively light-coloured cherries, moreover, were not like any I had come across before either. Intrigued,  I asked my in-laws about them.  They explained that one was a species of sweet cherry called “graffione bianco” and the other was a variety of sour cherry called “agriotta”. Once we were back home, I took it upon myself to find out some more about these delicious drupes, their cultivation and possible culinary uses!

According to Alan Davidson’s Oxford Companion to Food, the wild ancestors of sweet (Prunus avium) and sour (Prunus cerasus) cherries originated in West Asia. Written records of cherry consumption date back to at least 300 BC in Ancient Greece.  In fact, the English cherry, French cerise, Piedmontese cirese and Turkish kiraz all derive from Kerasos (now Giresun, Turkey), the name of an ancient town in the Pontus region of Asia Minor. Pliny the Elder’s Naturalis Historia indicates that, by the 1st century AD, at least nine varieties of cherry trees had made their way to the Italian peninsula.  Their fruit was held in high esteem and the Romans played a big part in spreading their cultivation to the farther reaches of their empire.  The first site of cherry cultivation in Piedmont appears to have been in the Roman settlement of Carrerum Potentia (better known today as Chieri).

In Italy, sweet cherries are generally classed into two main groups:

  • duracine (bigarreaux) – firm and dry flesh
  • tenerine (guignes) – soft and juicy flesh

The graffioni bianchi we picked belong to the bigarreau group. Like other bigarreaux, they are often used for the production of liqueur-filled chocolates. They can also be preserved in alcohol (sotto spirito)  or in their syrup (sciroppate) . In my opinion, many types of bigarreaux are delicious eaten raw. However, I have noticed many locals seem to opt for the softer and juicier guignes as a raw dessert fruit.

Sour cherries, on the other hand, are nearly always cooked and/or preserved and sweetened.  They are often classified into three categories:

  • amarene (amarelles) – lightly coloured and with clear juice (although their name would suggest that they belong to the griottes group below, the agriotte we picked are actually a type of amarelle)
  • visciole or griotte (griottes)dark and with coloured juice
  • marasche – small-sized, dark and with coloured juice (in Italy, these types of sour cherry are almost exclusively used for making cherry-based liqueurs such as Maraschino)

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The cherries on the left are the graffioni bianchi we picked. On their right are the  agriotte.
The cherries on the left are the graffioni bianchi we picked. On their right are the agriotte.

Blueberry focaccia

P1080805Blueberries are now in full season and currently gracing the stands at my local market. To my great delight, they are proving to be a big hit with my 14 month old daughter.  Just when you think she’s had a good serving of them, she’ll point to the bowl they’re in on the table and say ‘iss’ (I presume she means ‘this’) to indicate she wants more! I’m perfectly happy to oblige. I have no complaints at all if she wants seconds (and thirds!) of fruit and veggies.

Anyway, a couple of years ago, I made a cherry focaccia and I remember thinking that it would work well with blueberries too. Here is how I made my blueberry focaccia (or focaccia ai mirtilli as they say here) yesterday:

Ingredients

  • 550 g strong bread flour
  • 300 g milk
  • 200 g blueberries
  • 50 g butter, plus extra for coating
  • 10 g active dried yeast
  • 60 g sugar, plus extra for coating
  • 1 teaspoon salt

Method

  1. Mix milk, butter, sugar and yeast in bowl (Thermomix: 3 min./ 37  C/ Speed. 2).
  2. Add flour and salt. Knead for 3 minutes.
  3. Transfer dough into a large bowl and cover with cling film or a damp tea-towel. Leave to rise in a warm place until dough has doubled in size (about 2-3 hours).
  4. Preheat oven to 180 C.
  5. Grease pizza trays[1] with butter.
  6. Remove risen dough from bowl with well-dusted hands and place on a clean and lightly-dusted work surface. Flatten dough delicately (it should be at least 1 cm thick) and form a circle (or rectangle, depending on shape of tray) with it.
  7. Lay dough onto trays.
  8. Using a silicone pastry brush, coat focaccia with melted butter[2].
  9. Lay blueberries on focaccia.
  10. Sprinkle sugar liberally on top of focaccia.
  11. Bake in the oven for 25-30 minutes.

[1] I used two circular trays with a 26.5cm diameter.

[2] an egg yolk or milk could be used to coat your focaccia instead.

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Why I draw the line at using the word ‘authentic’

yoghurt panna cotta 3With a deliciously ‘inauthentic’ yoghurt and mint panna cotta recipe to follow!

As you some of you may know, I recently joined the #BloggingPiemonte group.  Members of this group have varying interests and backgrounds (I have included links to all the blogs involved in this initiative). We are,  however, united by the fact that we all live in the wonderful north-western Italian region of Piedmont and often make it the subject of our blog posts. As part of being involved, we write on a common topic periodically. This June, the topic is ‘Authenticity in Piedmont’.

Anyway, after an intense initiation into motherhood in mid-2014, late last year I returned to the blogosphere with Piedmontese recipe contributions at Turin Italy Guide. Naturally this task involves a lot of research, something I genuinely enjoy as I love food, cooking and history. Looking back, I have used many adjectives to describe the dishes I have written about. However, I have found myself drawing the line at using the word ‘authentic’. I suspect I am one of those party poopers Diana warned about when announcing this month’s topic. That is, one of those people who consider the word a loaded concept. Basically, as an amateur historian and recipe collector, I cannot accept the argument that there was, is and will only be one way to make many of the region’s signature dishes.

A cursory glance at history is more than enough to confirm that culinary customs in Italy have not remained static. Through trade, invasion and conquest, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Normans and Spaniards are just a few of many populations in the past three millennia who have contributed to the evolution of Italian cuisine.  The introduction of olives, grapes, rice, pasta, citrus fruits, and New World crops such as maize, tomatoes and potatoes are notable examples.

In an interview with the BBC, Massimo Bottura, chef patron of Modena’s Osteria Francescana said: ‘History has placed many layers upon the surface of this country and many cross-cultural influences have left their mark on its cuisine… Italian gastronomic history developed because our country was invaded, trampled and trodden on’. This is exactly what I have found with researching the history of Piedmontese recipes. They too, have developed and have been (and more than likely will continue to be) subject to evolution and change.

A case in point is the Piedmontese chocolate and amaretti pudding better known as bonet. The original version, which dates to the 13th century, did not include what is now considered an integral ingredient – cocoa. When cocoa became available in Europe after the ‘discovery’ of the Americas, it gradually began to be added to the pudding mixture.

And while we are on the subject of chocolate, what about gianduia? The cocoa-hazelnut mixture that characterises this chocolate was invented in 1806 due to the economic circumstances of the time – a blockade of the Mediterranean that rendered the costs of importing cocoa into the Savoy kingdom astronomically high. The torinese chocolate maker, Michele Prochet, had little choice but to extend the small amount of chocolate he had by mixing it with hazelnuts from the Langhe countryside. It went on to be considered a winning combination and is now a torinese icon.

Some people may also be surprised to find out that the mayonnaise in the salsa tonnata  for the Piedmontese antipasto, vitello tonnato, is a very recent addition. 19th century recipes for this dish indicate that the tuna sauce was made with tuna, anchovies, capers, olive oil and lemon juice. Later on, crushed hardboiled eggs were added to the sauce. Now those hardboiled eggs are being increasingly replaced  with mayonnaise.

In addition, I have found that people have their own unique formulas for making many other dishes here. When I was researching agnolotti, I came across so many different family recipes for the pasta dough as well as the stuffing. Panna cotta, that delectable softly-set pudding of obscure origin, can also be set, infused and served in a variety of ways, as many past and present recipes for it attest. Finding out your friends’ recipes (and secret ingredients!) for things such as ragù is one of the true pleasures of living here. Simply put, no one makes it in exactly the same way  as anyone else!

Moreover, I am amazed at the extent to which various foods that were previously unavailable and/or unknown are increasingly being grown, consumed and incorporated into dishes here. For instance, the consumption of tofu, made from Italian grown soya, is gradually becoming more common. Many vegetarians here use it as a  cheese and/or meat replacement in otherwise traditional Italian dishes. My husband, since visiting Australia and sampling the variety of Asian food my home country has to offer, has developed an appreciation of many Asian dishes and condiments and has taken to dressing his salad with extra virgin olive oil and soy sauce. Try it, they actually taste wonderful together!

The purists who insist on ‘authenticity’ may indeed cringe at the extra virgin olive oil – soy sauce pairing I described. I would not be at all surprised though if this seemingly unlikely combination becomes commonplace here at some point in the future.  As history demonstrates, Italian culinary culture and traditions have always been in a state of flux and will continue to be. For this reason, I wholeheartedly agree with the food historian Zachary Nowak when he says that taste and nutrition should determine what we eat, not culinary mythologies about authenticity.

As you have no doubt guessed from some of my previous posts, I love yoghurt and yoghurt making. I would therefore like to conclude  this defence of inauthenticity with a delicious and ‘inauthentic’ yoghurt and mint panna cotta recipe!

Buon appetito!

Yoghurt and Mint Panna Cotta

Ingredients

Utensils

  • A heavy-bottomed saucepan
  • A sieve
  • A whisk
  • A wooden spoon
  • A cooking thermometer
  • A bowl
  • 4 ramekins (125mL capacity)

Method

  • In a bowl, soften gelatin sheet in cold water.
  • Put cream, sugar and mint leaves in saucepan and allow to simmer (N.B. the temperature should not exceed  80 degrees). Remove saucepan from heat.
  • Remove gelatin sheet from bowl and squeeze until all excess water comes out.
  • Add gelatin sheet to cream mixture and stir until it dissolves.
  • Add the yoghurt and whisk until smooth.
  • Strain mixture through sieve and discard mint leaves.
  • Pour mixture carefully into ramekins.
  • Place ramekins in refrigerator and leave to set for at least 6 hours  or overnight.
  • Serve with berries placed on top of ramekins.
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#Blogging Piemonte

You’ll probably find that my fellow bloggers have interpreted the topic of ‘Authenticity in Piedmont’ very differently. Please visit the following links to read their spin on this concept:

Eptrad ‘That’s an Authentic Start’

Turin Epicurean Capital: ‘Living Turin style’

The Entire Pizza: ‘Forced to Live Authentically in Piemonte’

Wine & Truffles: ‘Authentic Living in the Alta Langa’

Living in the Langhe: ‘How to Become Authentically Piemontese in 5 Easy Steps’

Texas Mom in Torino: ‘Authenticity: The evolution of this Texas mom to an an Italian mamma’

Simply Italiana: ‘Finding Authenticity as a Foreigner in Italy’

ItaliAnna: ‘Piemonte = Authenticity’

Bailey Alexander: “Save Yourself by Saving the Planet: the real benefits of growing a garden”

Greek-style yoghurt

Until recently, I had always used a yoghurt maker and UHT milk to make my weekly fix of yoghurt. Lately though, I’ve been inspired to try alternate methods of making it and to find ways of achieving a thicker consistency.

When I was growing up, I remember my grandmother’s Greek neighbour would often bring over her homemade yoghurt over for us to try. It was wonderfully thick and creamy, almost cheese-like in consistency. The yoghurt I made in my yoghurt maker just did not compare in any way. I tried prolonging the fermentation period and even experimented with different full-cream milks to no avail.

After conducting some research, I figured out why my previous efforts to achieve a thicker consistency had been in vain. My grandmother’s neighbour did not have a yoghurt maker and based on the information I came across,  I doubt she cared about extending the fermentation time. Her yoghurt would always arrive at my grandmother’s place tightly wrapped in a cloth. In hindsight, I  realise the purpose of that cloth. That is, to strain and remove all the whey from the yoghurt. This was the secret to her thick yoghurt. There was no need at all to add cream, milk powder or any other thickening agent as many recipes claim.

Here is how I’ve been making my Greek-style yoghurt:

Ingredients

  • 1 litre fresh full cream milk
  • a yoghurt starter[i]containing active yoghurt cultures (streptococcus termophilius and lactobacillus bulgaricus)

Utensils

  • a heavy-bottomed saucepan
  • a whisk
  • a cooking thermometer
  • a colander
  • a muslin cheesecloth
  • a large bowl

Method

  1. Bring milk to just below boiling point.
  2. Remove saucepan from heat and leave to cool until milk is 37-40 degrees Celsius.
  3. Add yoghurt culture to milk and whisk it into milk mixture thoroughly.
  4. Cover saucepan with lid and wrap a blanket or tablecloth around it.
  5. Place covered saucepan in a warm place (such as a cupboard or an oven that has been turned off for a while) and leave to ferment for at least 7-8 hours.
  6. Place colander inside large bowl and line it with muslin cheesecloth.
  7. Pour yoghurt mixture into cheesecloth.
  8. Put bowl with colander in refrigerator. Leave yoghurt to strain for at least 2 hours.

[i] You can choose from three types of yoghurt starter: 1. A natural commercial yoghurt (preferably full cream) with a use by date as far into the future as possible; 2. From a yoghurt you have made yourself; 3. From a freeze-dried yoghurt culture (available from chemists or specialist health food shops).

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