Simplicity is not my strong point. In fact, I often complicate matters for myself, whether it’s at work, at home and in the kitchen. Long, multi-step preparations. Laborious cookery techniques. Trying to procure unusual and/or obscure ingredients. When I have the means, time and space available, wonderful things can be made. Sometimes though, the best foods are the simplest. A recent toddler-free (thank you nonna and nonno for babysitting!) morning visit to Cherasco, a medieval hilltop town in Piedmont’s Langhe region, reminded me of this.
TP and I were walking briskly along the portico-lined footpath of the town’s main street. There was a damp chill in the air so we tried to keep moving as quickly as possible. Still, I managed to squeeze in admiring glances at the doors and windows of the palazzi along the cobblestoned street as we raced by.
‘I’m sorry but can we stop for a moment so I can change my camera lens?’ I asked TP. My fish-eye lens wouldn’t capture close ups of the finestre and porte I had fallen in love with.
‘Si, d’accordo’, TP sighed, placing his woollen-gloved hands in his coat pockets. Clearly determined to protect himself from the dreaded umidità or dampness, he began marching on the spot while I made my photographic pit stop.
I took off my gloves, placed them in my pockets and rummaged through my camera bag. My bare hands achingly longed for the tattered lining of my navy blue leather gloves. Loose-fitting guanti, however, don’t lend themselves well to fiddling with exposure dials and aperture settings. I was screwing on my 28-80mm lens when TP suddenly stopped muttering about the cold. He was excited now and pointed out a sign about 20 metres ahead of us. Baci di Cherasco, it said.
Once my lens was firmly fitted onto my camera body, we made our way to the sign and the shopfront of Pasticceria Barbero underneath it. This was the place, where, in 1881, the confectioner Marco Barbero is said to have invented the dark chocolate and hazelnut ‘kisses’ the town is famous for. Local legend has it that after making a batch of torrone (nougat), Barbero had a lot of roasted hazelnut chunks leftover. On a whim, he dipped these in some dark chocolate. The result: simple yet delectably addictive chocolate and hazelnut nuggets. I’m currently averaging about five of them with my afternoon coffee!
Back in Turin, I looked up all the recipes I could find for chocolate and hazelnut baci. I was very tempted by a baci recipe which called for hazelnuts, cocoa and cocoa butter. Unless you’re professional chocolate maker though, cocoa butter is not easy to find. So, in the name of simplifying home cooking, I made these scrumptious smooches with an ingredient readily available at the local supermarket – tablets of dark chocolate.
Ingredients (makes about 22-25 baci)
300 g dark chocolate, chopped
150 g hazelnuts, roasted, peeled and roughly crushed
Put chopped chocolate in a stainless steel bowl and place it over a pot of simmering water.
Stir until the chocolate melts and is nice and smooth. Turn off heat and remove stainless steel bowl from pot.
Add crushed hazelnuts to melted chocolate and stir until well combined.
With the aid of two teaspoons, carefully remove a spoonful of the mixture from the bowl onto a lined tray. To prevent the chocolate and hazelnut from spreading too widely, form a barrier with the spoons on opposite sides of the bacio for several seconds. The bacio should be about 1.5 to 2cm in diameter and approximately 1 cm in height.(Alternatively, you could always use mini cup-cake holders!)
Repeat procedure with remaining chocolate and hazelnut mixture.
Place tray with baci in the refrigerator overnight.
Remove baci from refrigerator and store in a lined, tightly sealed container. Best consumed within a month of making them.
And, if you’d rather leave the baci-making to the professionals, here’s where you can find Pasticceria Barbero:
If you have to do your shopping here on a Saturday, it is best to get in early. The often huge throngs of people surrounding the bancarelle (stalls) at the local markets can be quite intimidating to the uninitiated. It’s not just apples, pumpkins and other current seasonal delights that people want to buy though. Paolo, my local butcher, also has his biggest trading day on a Saturday. After a long week at work, it’s normal to want to take things easy and not rush things at the weekends. When you have a human alarm o’clock (i.e. a toddler) to wake you up though, it’s basically a given that you won’t sleep in on a Saturday. Alarm sounds vary from dreaded cries of rage to the far more pleasant (and infectious!) gurgles and giggles. The silver lining to this enforced early rise is not having to deal with large crowds who also want fresh farm produce and the butcher’s choicest cuts.
Anyway, yet another Saturday arrives and my treasured sleep is put to an end by a new ringtone. This time, it’s noise from objects being thrust and thrown around. Somehow, Turin Toddler (TT) has managed to get her hands on some of my cookbooks. There she is, flipping through my copy of Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Cooking Well. Knowing that I will need Artusi’s help for dinner tonight, I attempt to distract her with the more age-appropriate board book I Went Walking. She protests and gestures her preference for my increasingly dog-eared historical recipe book: ‘Iss! Iss! Iss!’ I end up relenting, as usual. Still feeling a bit sleepy, I’m not in the mood for a tantrum. Somehow, I’ll get my lamb-chop side-burned signore back…
TT, as predicted, soon gets bored with Artusi and finds other objects to amuse herself with. We play together for a while and then proceed with the long and rather drawn-out process of having breakfast. TT would rather throw the brioches that Turin Papà (TP) has bought for us especially from our local pasticceria. Rarely hungry after she wakes up, we let the matter go, eat our own crema pasticcera-filled pastries and sweep the crumbs and flakes that have accumulated under TT’s high chair.
After we shower and get dressed, TP makes his daily inquiry about culinary matters: ‘Cosa mangiamo di buono stasera? (What are we going to eat tonight?)’
‘Risotto alla milanese,’ I respond, knowing that he’ll be pleased. TP loves rice dishes, especially risottos.
Not wanting to dampen his enthusiasm, I neglect to mention my intention to make the dish with bone marrow, as per one of Artusi’s recipes for the dish. With the exception of tripe, TP is not a fan of offal.
I set off for the market in Corso Brunelleschi with TT in her stroller and quickly glance at my watch. It is already 9.40. We’ve been slower than I thought at getting ready. And, like most Saturdays, there is already a good-sized crowd of mostly oldies at one of my favourite market stalls. I’m momentarily put off and consider going to one of the other less crowded stalls. There is, however, a big advantage to buying fruit and vegetables from Marzia. She is one of the few vendors at the market who has a ticketing system. This may sound extreme but it really is a necessity for vendors wishing to keep the peace. Many locals, surprisingly enough deceptively sweet-looking nonni, are often determined to be served as quickly as possible. Some show little to no scruples when it comes to queue-jumping either. Their tactics can range from the sneaky (‘But I only need some eggs/a bunch of parsley/some celery’) to the downright contentious (‘But I was here before this lady was!’). Trying to be assertive but polite in your second language can be quite a struggle at times. So, to avoid arguments and appearing disrespectful to the elderly, I generally buy from the vendors with ticketing systems. Plus, Marzia really does have the best locally-grown apples right now. I park TT’s stroller.
‘Scusi ma devo prendere il numero,’ I say to the crowd of people surrounding Marzia’s stall. I nudge my way through and grab my number from the ticket dispenser. 85, it says. I then hear Marzia announce: ‘Sessanta-nove!A chi tocca? (Sixty-nine! Whose turn is it?)’
There are 16 people in front of me. Not in the literal sense though. Physically lining up one by one is just not the done thing here. Armed with shopping trolleys, the nonni are all standing as close to Marzia’s counter as they can, ready to pounce with a triumphant ‘Tocca a me (It’s my turn)’ once their numbers are called.
Wanting to get a clearer look at the cratefuls of produce on sale, I strategically start inching TT’s stroller closer to Marcia’s counter. I manage to get through and push on the brake of TT’s stroller. TT starts skirming. She often does when her stroller comes to a halt. A tiny, smartly-dressed nonna, starts talking to TT and elicits a smile.
‘Che bei denti che hai! (What beautiful teeth you have!)’ the nonna exclaims to TT. Italians, particularly the elderly, love bambini and have no reservations whatsoever about engaging with the babies and toddlers of complete strangers.
She then asks me: ‘Quanto ha? (How old is she?)’. The nonne have no qualms about asking mothers vital stats about their pregnancies and their babies either. Since being visibly pregnant with TT, I’ve nearly always found myself drawn into having pregnancy and/or baby-related discussions at the markets with my fellow market shoppers. Belly shapes, due dates, breastfeeding, teething, solids and baby carriers are just a few of the subjects the ubiquitous nonne have readily dispensed their advice/observations/recollections about to me in the past 18+ months.
‘Eighteen months’, I tell her.
‘And she already has that many teeth?’ the nonna comments incredulously.
Marzia then notices TT and I. I’ve been buying fruit and veggies from her since I was pregnant and she has become very fond of TT. She immediately wishes me buongiorno and starts making sweet faces at TT.
‘Ciao bellissima’, she says to TT.
TT is skirming again. Marzia and her assistants are now serving customers 71, 72 and 73. I take TT out of her stroller and hold her so she can have a closer look at the crates. She is rather taken by the royal gala apples. These days, all red-coloured foods –apples, capsicums and tomatoes – meet with her approval. She puts per index finger to her cheek to indicate that she thinks the royal galas are yummy. A toddler of few words, gestures like this typically Italian one, are her way of communicating.
All of a sudden, TT decides she doesn’t want to stay in my arms anymore. There are still more customers to be served before me. I put her on the ground to walk. She immediately starts walking away from Marzia’s stall and makes her way to the homewares stall opposite. Fearing irreparable damage to (and with!) the assortment of kitchen utensils on sale there, I pick her up. She begins to wail. I then try to put her back in her stroller to no avail. She wants to walk and she wants to walk NOW!
Marcia then notices I’m struggling to contain TT.
“Il povero tesoro non ce la fa più!’ she exclaims. She offers to serve us immediately. I thank her profusely. I neglected to mention the other advantage to shopping at Marzia’s stall; her sensitivity to the elderly, pregnant women and parents with crying babies and/or bored young children. She insists on serving them first.
Somehow, I manage to contain TT, keep her in my arms and order everything I want – apples, potatoes and a particularly handsome pumpkin – in quick succession. The nonna who was impressed by TT’s dental development helps me put my booty in the basket under TT’s stroller. I suddenly remember that TT didn’t eat much breakfast before going to the market and remove an apple from one of the paper bags. I bite into it and place it in TT’s hands. She begins gnawing at it with her bei denti and luckily, doesn’t seem to notice that I have slipped her back into her stroller again. Phew! I then offer my number 85 ticket to a customer who arrived after me. Marzia, her assistants and the nonni hanging out to be served all bid us buona giornata, buona domenica and buon appetito!
The post A Morning at the Markets was inspired by this month’s #BlogPiemonte topic of A Day In The Life.
If you wish to pay a visit to Marzia and other contadini selling their produce, you can find them at my local market in Corso Filippo Brunelleschi, in the Pozzo Strada area of Turin, from Monday to Friday from 8:00am to 2:00pm and on Saturday all day.
I’ll be posting about risotto alla milanese in the next couple of weeks. Pellegrino Artusi, to my great delight, was no purist and actually included three different recipes (two of them without bone marrow if you’re not keen on offal!) for this wonderful dish. I’m currently in the middle of trying them all out.
In the meantime, don’t forget to check out what my fellow bloggers had to say about this month’s topic:
And these urns make sacred for the traveller that earth which holds them
– Ugo Foscolo, Of the Sepulchres, 1807 –
I have always felt drawn to cemeteries. Whenever I go to the resting places of loved ones, I nearly always insist on staying longer to visit the burial sites of those nearby. They fascinate me with their names, dates and commemorative messages inscribed in their honour. I infer a lot about their lives and sadly, in some cases, deaths, from the information on the plaques. Illnesses or accidents that put a premature end to young lives. Personal, local and world events they lived through. Technological changes they witnessed. I then gasp when I make that inevitable realisation; these were people who lived and breathed just like me.
When I was younger, this reminder about mortality frightened me. With All Saints and All Souls Days rapidly approaching though, I’ve found myself reflecting on the lesson going to the cemetery taught me. I am not particularly religious. I do concede though that there is something special about Italian funerary art and moving about the commemorative customs characterising these Catholic feast days.
Each Italian village, town and city is home to a monumental cemetery run by the local council. These walled enclosures are located outside the historic centres, as per the 1804 Edict of Saint-Cloud which forbade burials in church graveyards within town walls [i]. With their multi-storied blocks of marble-plaqued vaults, they are veritable necropolises or cities of the dead. Home to funerary art and architecture representing a variety of artistic and architectural periods since Napoleon’s decree, some cimiterimonumentali[ii] are breathtakingly beautiful. Every 1st November (All Saints Day), a public holiday, their grounds fill up with visitors bringing flowers to the graves of their deceased relatives. The following day (All Souls Day), candles are lit for i defunti (‘the dead’) who are said to have returned for the day.
Rituals on these feast days are not limited to the churches and cemeteries. In Sicily, many children still look for presents – in the past these were in the form of frutta martorana (surreally colourful marzipan sweets made to look like fruits and vegetables) – around their homes hidden by the defunti. Gestures, moreover, are made to accommodate relatives visiting their old haunts with many families leaving lights on at night and setting an extra place at the table. On that table, symbolic offerings of food and drink, generally glasses of water and sweets, are laid out. Tired and weary after their journey from the underworld, the dead will be in need of replenishment.
Before Christianity, pagan food offerings in Ancient Rome were savoury beans. Later on, this practice was taken up by Christians. At some point though, the offerings took on a less savoury note and became sweet breads and biscuits. The biscuits can be rather macabre-looking as they are often made to resemble the ossa dei morti or ‘bones of the dead’ in shape and, in some cases, consistency. Sicilian ‘bones’, made with almonds and flavoured with cinnamon and cloves, are renowned for being particularly hard to bite into! The Piedmontese interpretation of these ‘bones’ are chewy macaroon-like biscuits, made with flour, sugar, eggs, butter, almonds and/or hazelnuts called ossa da mordere or ‘bones to bite on’). Here is a recipe for them from the town of Borgomanero:
Ossa da mordere piemontesi
Ingredients (makes about 20-25 ‘bones’)
320 g flour, plus extra for dusting
200 g hazelnuts, roughly chopped
400 g caster sugar
3 egg whites
A pinch of salt
30 g butter, melted
Lemon juice from half a lemon
Pre-heat oven to 180 degrees.
In a large mixing bowl, combine flour, chopped hazelnuts and sugar.
Beat egg whites and pinch of salt until stiff white peaks form.
Add lemon juice, melted butter and egg whites to mixing bowl and combine wet and dry ingredients carefully.
Dust hands and a clean working surface with flour and knead biscuit mixture until obtaining a firm and smooth ball of dough.
Divide dough into four equal sized balls. Roll each ball into a long snake-like shape. Cut snakes into pieces 5-7 cm long and shape them into ‘bones’.
Place ‘bones’ on a lined baking tray, ensuring that they are no too close to each other.
Bake bones for 20-25 minutes or until a nice golden colour.
Remove from oven and leave to cool before serving.
[i] The edict also stipulated that, for democratic reasons, all tombs had to be equal in size with inscriptions to be controlled by a special commission. Ugo Foscolo, the poet quoted above, was critical of the decree. Although an atheist and generally supportive of French revolutionary principles, he felt all human beings aspire to transcend death and that the monuments and tombs of ‘great men’ serve to inspire the living to ‘great deeds’.
This summer has definitely been the hottest I’ve experienced since moving to Turin in late 2007. Too hot to cook at a stovetop. Too hot to turn on an oven. Too hot to go out of the house after mid-morning. Too hot to eat hot food. Too hot, dare I admit it, to wear clothes, even summer ones! The wonderful team of child-carers at my daughter’s asilo nido have had little choice but to strip the kids to their nappies and organise water activities.
Given the stifling heat, I really don’t know what possessed my mum and I to go to the Palace of Venaria in the middle of the day recently. I guess I wanted to treat her to an outing after all the help she has given with babysitting since resuming my studies and the day job a few months ago. I also had this month’s #BlogPiemonte topic in mind, Royalty in Piedmont. We therefore went in hope of finding some food-related inspiration (not an easy task when you’re a convinced republican!) for this post.
So there we were, in the oppressive late July heat, sitting on an unconditioned bus. No one had thought to open a window either. Mum and I, well aware of many an Italian’s aversion to getting ‘hit by air’ (that’s the literal translation of colpo d’aria), just didn’t really feel up to incurring the disapproval of our fellow passengers and refrained from letting some semblance of a draught in.
The bus reached the terminus, finally. We sighed in relief as we got off. That was until I realised that I didn’t know where we were. We had taken a normal suburban bus from my place west of the Turin city centre, not one of the more tourist-oriented routes that take passengers directly to Piedmont’s answer to Versailles.
We took note of our unassuming suburban surroundings. There was a playground, a cemetery and a shop that sold Sicilian food products and specialties. No sign of an opulent royal residence. Then, I noticed the distinct clay coloured brick walls of the palace about a kilometre down the street. We proceeded to walk down that street and sure enough, we came across a sign confirming that we were headed in the right direction.
We turned a corner and found ourselves on a dusty and narrow street lined with low-rise residential blocks. Those blocks soon turned into those familiar brick walls and several partially demolished buildings, evidence of the palace’s decline, subsequent abandonment, and conversion into an army barracks and training ground during the Napoleonic Wars at end of the 18th century.[i]
Then something caught my eye. It was the word ghiacciaia (‘ice room’) painted in capital letters above the wooden door of an abandoned block. Immediately, I wanted to know more. Was this the ice room used by the kitchen staff that served the Savoy court or the French occupational force later on? What exactly did they preserve in there? I was intrigued because, in the past, the food that has become my obsession this summer, ice-cream, would have been very difficult to make without access to one of these. These days, ice cream is enjoyed by people from all levels of society. It’s hard for us to believe but this wasn’t the case before mechanised refrigeration and ice-cream makers. In its early days, ice-cream was a dessert that only the elite would have been able to savour.
The history of ice cream begins with ice harvesting and storage in the ancient civilisations of Mesopotamia, China, Greece and Rome. Servants and slaves were often sent to collect snow and ice from nearby peaks so they could be stored in ice pits and houses. It was, in short, a costly and back-breaking business. For this reason, possession of this precious commodity was flaunted as a status symbol by those in power. The Roman Emperor Nero, for instance, is said to have served his dinner guests honey and fruit flavoured snow. Another example comes from 4th century Japan, when Emperor Nintoku bestowed chips of ice on palace guests as part of National Ice Day celebrations.
After the introduction of sweetened chilled drinks called sharbats by the Arabs in Sicily, the popularity of these ice-cool concoctions spread among aristocrats across the Italian peninsula in the Middle Ages. This was despite the warnings of many physicians about the dangers of drinking cold beverages. At the time, medical thought was heavily influenced by the ancient Greek physicians Hippocrates’ and Galen’s prescriptions against consuming cold foods and drinks.
Snow and ice alone, however, are not sufficient to freeze other substances. Contrary to popular opinion, however, this scientific process essential to making ice-cream had not been discovered by the time the Florentine Catherine de Medici was betrothed to the Duke of Orléans (the future Henri II of France) in 1533. This myth, along with the one about Marco Polo learning the trade of ice-cream making in the Far East court of Kublai Khan, persist in Italy and elsewhere to this day. Just in case you’re not familiar with this legend, it goes something like this:
Fourteen year old Catherine de Medici goes to France to marry fourteen year old Henri. She brings highly-skilled Florentine chefs with her so she has never-ending supply of frozen creams and ices. Florentine chefs serve frozen creams and ices at court banquet. French court, which disapproves of union between Henri and member of upstart nouveau riche Medici family , is dazzled by creations. Dessert becomes toast of Paris. Modern ice-cream is born.
The truth is, Catherine, Henri and other royals would have had to wait until at least 1589 (and more than likely, a long time after that) to enjoy a real ice-cream when Giambattista Della Porta discovered an artificial freezing technique. In his book, Natural magick, he described how water in a bucket froze after being immersed in a container filled with snow and potassium nitrate (saltpetre). Eventually, other scientists and cooks found that common salt mixed with ice or snow had the same effect. Italian cooks, many who were already familiar with techniques for serving their masters sharbats, creams and custards chilled, then began obtaining icier consistencies thanks to this freezing method.
Antonio Latini, steward to the prime minister of the Spanish viceroy in Naples, provides us with the first written record of these frozen desserts in his 1692 publication Lo scalco alla moderna (‘The Modern Steward’). As steward to Don Stefano Carrillo Salcedo’s household, one of his many tasks was to organise sumptuous banquets. His book included many innovative recipes. Several of these were for what he called sorbette[ii], both fruit and milk-based. Judging by the quantities of sugar he specifies, it’s doubtful that his sorbette had the consistency and sweetness we’re now accustomed to. Not wanting to reveal the secrets of his trade, he was also deliberately vague in his instructions. Nevertheless, historians generally agree that these Neapolitan sorbette were the first real prototype for the sorbets and ice-cream we know today.
In summer, I’m quite fond of replacing my afternoon coffee with an affogato, frappè or gelato al caffè. Here is a recipe for caffè-lattegelato I’ve adapted from Pellegrino Artusi’s Science in the kitchen and the art of cooking well. The relative lack of fat content renders it rather sorbet- or caffè freddo-like. By the time Artusi’s book was published in the late 19th century, the sorbettiera americana (literally, American sorbet maker) had been invented and he recommended its use in his sorbet and ice cream recipes. At the time, most Italian gelatai couldn’t afford to invest in the new technology and continued to make their gelati in a cylinder inside a tub filled with ice and salt. Many would do so for years to come. However, it’s fair to say this invention (along with mechanical refrigeration) heralded the beginning of the end for time-consuming and labour-intensive ice (not to mention salt!) harvesting, storage and freezing. Ice cream was finally on its way to being enjoyed by all people.
250 g espresso or percolated coffee, room temperature
150 g sugar
Place ice cream maker bowl in freezer for twelve hours.
Combine milk and sugar in saucepan. Simmer until sugar has dissolved. Leave to cool until room temperature.
Add coffee to milk and sugar mixture.
Pour mixture into container and refrigerate until chilled.
Remove bowl from freezer and assemble ice-cream maker according to manufacturer’s instructions.
Pour mixture slowly into ice-cream maker. Churn for 30 minutes.
Further reading about the history of ice-harvesting and ice-cream:
If you’re interested in learning more about this fascinating subject, I found the following sources very useful:
P. Artusi – Science in the kitchen and the art of cooking well (WARNING: Artusi, often dubbed the ‘grandfather of Italian cuisine’ does repeat the myth of Catherine de Medici in the introduction of his chapter on gelati but it’s still a fascinating primary source for late 19th century recipes)
A. Capatti & M. Montanari – Italian cuisine: a cultural history
E. David – Harvest of the Cold Months: the social history of ice and ices
E. David – Italian Food (In later editions of this seminal publication on Italian cuisine, David admits to mistakenely depicting the Medici ice cream legend as fact when the book was first published in 1954. Later on, her research led her to realise that there was no historical basis for this myth. For a more detailed account, Harvest of the Cold Months is highly recommended!)
A. Davidson – The Oxford Companion to Food
J. & G. Quinzio – Of Sugar and Snow: a history of ice-cream making
L. Reiss – Ice cream: a global history
G. Riley – The Oxford Companion to Italian Food
And finally, stay tuned this August to see how my fellow Piedmont-based bloggers interpret this month’s topic, ‘Royalty in Piedmont’:
Use the hashtag #BlogPiemonte and follow the conversation on Twitter and other social media!
[i] The palace would go on to be used by the Italian army until 1978 when the Italian Ministry of Culture bought the site in 1978. Restoration of the palace began in the late 1990s and it was finally opened to the public in 2007. For more information about the Palace of Venaria, here is an article by my fellow blogger Lara: http://www.turinitalyguide.com/reggia-di-venaria/
[ii] In modern Italian, the word for sorbet is masculine: sorbetto (singular), sorbetti (plural). Latini used feminine forms (sorbetta, sorbette) in his recipes. Interestingly enough, he didn’t use the word gelato either to describe his sorbette di latte (milk-based sorbets). The use of term gelato only dates back to the 19th century.
Before heading off on our summer holiday to Numana, a town on the central Adriatic coast of Italy, I had big plans for this post. I would write a detailed guide about the often overlooked region of the Marche. With its hilly landscape, cities and towns of great beauty and historical interest (Ancona, Ascoli Piceno and Urbino to name just a few) and an incredibly varied cuisine, it has much to offer visitors looking to go off the beaten track in Italy. However, as the saying goes,’ God laughs when you make plans’, especially if you are travelling with a toddler! Nine days into our holiday, after a day of sightseeing in Loreto and Recanati, my little girl came down with a virus and fever. Instead of visiting the castle towns of Offagna and Osimo, the caves of Frasassi and the city of Ancona for a second day as we had planned, my husband and I spent the rest of our holiday comforting our little one and trying to alleviate her symptoms. Oh well, this is the reality of raising children. They will get sick and often at times that we’d really prefer they didn’t.
So, even though we weren’t able to do everything we’d planned, it was, for the most part, an enjoyable holiday. Here’s a synopsis of where we went, what we ate and other local specialties we treated ourselves to during our holiday along the Riviera del Conero in the Marche.
Where we went
We rented a flat for two weeks in Numana and used this seaside town as our base. Originally inhabited by tribes of Picentini and Sicels, the town fell under Greek, then Roman domination over 2,500 years ago. Notable sights such the aqueduct and Arco di Torre date back to the period of Roman rule.
Our flat was in the old town which is situated on a cliff overlooking the sea. I really came to love the walk down (with the heat and a toddler in tow, I didn’t feel the same way about the walk up!) to La Spiaggiola beach. We stopped so many times to take photos and admire the view.
Sirolo is only ten minutes (uphill!) walk from Numana so we went here several times during our stay. Like Numana, Sirolo has been inhabited since ancient times. To defend itself from invasion, the town was fortified in the year of 1050. In 1225, the ruling Cortesi family ceded rule of the town to the maritime Republic of Ancona.
I loved the town’s medieval centro storico, the vicoli and the main square’s cliff top position. The view of the coastline from this piazza is just spectacular.
Ancona is the regional capital of Le Marche. Home to over 100,000 inhabitants (200,000-300,000 in the greater met area) this distinctly elbow-shaped port city was founded by Greek settlers from Syracuse in 387 BC. One of travel brochures I came across described the city as an open air museum. After visiting the city halfway through our holiday, and realising a day was not enough to visit all the sites of historical and/or cultural interest, I feel the description is not an exaggeration.
As you know, we weren’t able to visit all the city sites we had intended to. I’m glad, however, that we at least made it to Ancona Cathedral. Dedicated to the city’s patron saint, Cyriacus, this place of worship perfectly encapsulates the city’s 2,500 year history in one building. Construction of the Romanesque-Byzantine cathedral began in the year 995. Excavations in the late 1940s revealed that the cathedral had been built upon the site of a temple dedicated to Aphrodite dating back to the 3rd century BC and on top of that, a 6th century paleo-Christian church. Situated on the summit of Guasco hill, it’s the perfect place to enjoy panaromic views of the city and its port.
Loreto is an inland hilltown southeast of Ancona. It’s home to an important site of Catholic pilgrimage, the Basilica Della Santa Casa. TT had a wonderful time climbing the stairs here. Needless to say but it wasn’t as much fun for her parents…
Recanati is another inland hilltown. Founded in 1150 AD from three pre-existing castles, this lovely medieval town is perhaps best known today for being the birthplace of several notable cultural figures, such as the tenor Beniamino Gigli, the poet Giacomo Leopardi and the composer Giuseppe Persiani.
What we ate
Being a coastal region, we ate a lot of seafood, including dishes like fritto misto di pesce e verdure, calamari in porchetta, and spaghetti con i moscioli. The region is also known for its production of pasta, cheeses such as pecorino, mozzarella and ricotta as well as salumi and prosciutti.
One of my favourite regional dishes, a guilty pleasure if there ever was one, would have to be leolive all’ascolana. These stuffed olives are generally served as a finger food or appetiser. They are a specialty of Ascoli Piceno, a beautiful city which boasts a centro storico almost entirely built in Travertine marble, in the south of the Marche. These days, however, they are made all over the region. I had entertained the idea of doing a post with a recipe for these deep-fried delights once I returned home to Turin. I quickly discarded that idea though when the owner of a gastronomia (a type of delicatessen that is also an eatery) we ate at in Numana told us that he only uses le olive ascolane DOP specially delivered from Ascoli Piceno to make them. Apparently, the results are just not the same with other types of olives.
What we bought
Ladies (and fashion conscious men!), guess what? You know those all those handbags and shoes by Tods, Hogan and Prada? There’s a very good chance that they were Made in the Marche! Along with fellow central Italian regions Tuscany and Umbria, the Marche has a long tradition of making leather goods. If you are looking for bargains on the big names, there are plenty of outlets. I must admit though, I prefer the one-of-a-kind creations of small-scale artisans. After TT got sick, I felt I deserved a bit of retail therapy and bought some lovely handmade shoes by La Scarpetta di Venere and a bag by Elisabetta Cosmo in Sirolo.
You can find shoes by La Scarpetta di Venere and Elisabetta Cosmo’s bags at the following:
N.B. This post wouldn’t have been possible without the support of Turin papà (TP). Not only was he incredibly helpful when TT came down with her virus, he also took many of the photos featured in this post. TP, ti ringrazio di cuore per questa bellissima vacanza. Ti voglio un mondo di bene!
For 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)
A typical Italian breakfast differs greatly from the average Australian one. Back home, I’d have yoghurt, cereal, or something savoury (a big favourite of mine is toast with eggs, peanut butter or avocado!). Here in Turin on the other hand, I’m more likely to have a sweet breakfast like most locals do. Generally, if people are having breakfast at home, they have caffè e latte with bread, butter and jam or biscuits. During the week however, they may go to a bar on their way to work for breakfast and order a cappuccino and a pastry (often a croissant).
I love biscuits but sometimes I get annoyed at all the packaging which easily accumulates if you buy them from the supermarket all the time. I also enjoy a good croissant with a cappuccino from a bar. However, even if it is by no means expensive to have breakfast at a bar here in Turin (the average cappuccino costs 1.50 euro and the average croissant is 1.00 euro), it does add up if you do it every day.
Anyway, if you’re keen like me to:
a.reduce packaging waste and/or;
b. save a few pennies but;
c. do not want to renounce something sweet for brekkie,
then here is a chocolate chip cookies recipe for you. It is loosely based on Felicity Cloake’s[i] and I like to make these because they remind me of my husband’s packaged biscuits of choice from the supermarket called gocciole (tear-dropped shaped biscuits with chocolate chips in them). I would recommend preparing the dough in advance and allowing it to chill so that it is easier to roll and shape afterwards.
Chocolate Chip Cookies
240g plain flour
170g dark chocolate, roughly chopped (or equivalent amount of dark chocolate chips)
150 g raw sugar
120g melted butter
½ tsp bicarbonate of soda
1 tsp salt
Using an electric beater, beat butter, sugar and egg until well combined.
Sift flour, bicarbonate of soda and salt and then using a wooden spoon, add to the butter, egg and sugar mixture. Stir until it forms a dough-like consistency.
Fold in the chocolate pieces.
Chill cookie dough in fridge overnight.
Preheat the oven to 180 degrees. Line two baking trays with greaseproof paper.
Knead and flatten dough (use a rolling pin if necessary) on a lightly floured working surface.
Using cookie cutters, cut out shapes and place on baking tray, ensuring you leave enough space between them.
Bake for about 15 minutes, until golden, but not browned.
Allow to cool on tray before transferring to wire rack to cool completely.