Gorse Flower Cordial at Cupid Woods

homemade gorse flower cordial, bottled

Gorse is a thorny evergreen shrub that thrives on Cornwall’s windswept moors, bathing vast stretches of the Cornish landscape in cheery yellow for much of the year. Also known as furze or whin, gorse plays an important role in area eco-systems, providing dense, protective cover for nesting birds. This abundant, resilient plant has been used traditionally for an array of purposes, from livestock fodder to dye-making and besoms, as a pest repellent for crops and even the ultimate clothes line (once latched on to its sharp, strong thorns, fabrics are not easily blown away from gorse!). Long associated with fire, gorse is propagated through burning, and represents as well a significant wildfire risk. Time ago gorse crofts were a vital source of firewood for Cornish peasants, its high flammability rendering it a valuable fuel.

Come the start-of-summer ritual observances around May Day, gorse appears alongside other May flowers in bundles attached to doorposts to ward off evil, thieves, or ill-wishers, and in Cornwall particularly locals who tie a sprig of gorse to their front door might receive treats from friends and neighbors. To some the national flower of Cornwall and for ages linked to Saint Piran, the 6th-century figure popularly recognized as patron saint of Cornwall (and patron of tinners), gorse represents one of those bridges between symbolic and practical I find so fascinating, connecting folkways, cultural identity, and the natural world through its many uses and associations.

With their not-overly-floral composition and rich flavor reminiscent of coconut and vanilla, gorse flowers are used to intriguing effect in perfumes and wines. On my recent return visit to Cornwall, in fact, I had the chance to taste a homemade cordial made from gorse flowers, thanks to the generosity and creativity of a lovely new friend. Jo Cooper is a highly talented cook, possessing aplomb and expertise I’ve never encountered in one self-taught. After a morning spent picking up Newlyn crab, Cornish cheeses and duck eggs, locally grown asparagus and other supplies, she took me to Cupid Woods near Carbis Bay (today known as Cubit Woods), where she oversees a very worth-your-time project called Heart of the Woods. An expert forager as well, Jo guided me on a walk through that sublimely peaceful patch of land to gather garlic flowers, lime tree leaves, navelwort and more, after which we returned to her deftly built pit fire to enjoy a most memorable meal, born of her imagination:

The work Jo currently does at Heart of the Woods includes organizing and leading volunteer-based outdoor group classes and fun activities to educate children on nature and wildlife. She is, in her own words, ‘eager to connect children with nature and foster an enthusiasm for the woodland environment and its future care.’ (This together with her cooking skills qualifies her as a total bad-ass.) It was a brilliant day, filled with things that made me fall in love with Cornwall last year—natural beauty, wonderful food, really cool people.

Gathering gorse flowers can be a dangerous undertaking. Some wear gloves, but as Jo noted before I wandered off to pick a few, the best method is simply to pull the flower buds towards you to avoid being pricked by gorse’s small yet ferocious spines. I fared well enough. No bleeding at least.

Here is Jo’s recipe for gorse flower cordial:

Ingredients

½ liter water
100 grams sugar
2 large handfuls gorse flowers

Instructions

Place the flowers in a large bowl. Bring the sugar and water to a boil. Remove from heat and pour over the flowers. Let steep 24 hours, then filter and bottle. This version will keep for 3 to 4 months. Increasing the amount of sugar to as much as 300 grams will result in a syrup-like cordial that keeps for a year. The cordial makes a nice cocktail, served on ice with tonic water.

culture bites

Variations of a popular saying in Cornwall and elsewhere in the U.K. reflect the plant’s prolific bloom throughout most of the year: kissing’s out of fashion when the gorse is out of blossom and when the gorse is not in flower, kissing’s out of fashion, among others.  Kiss the year long, in other words

Gorse is commonly called ginestrone in Italian.  According to a Sicilian legend, the noise of a burning gorse bush in the garden of Gethsemane attracted the attention of the Roman soldiers who captured Jesus Christ. Thus the plant was cursed to always crackle and hiss when burnt.  

Cicely Mary Barker’s illustration of gorse

The ‘Crunchy Artichoke’ at Osteria della Piazzetta dell’Erba

the (crunchy) artichoke of your dreams

Easter is always a time of feasting and friends, yet Easter 2017 will go down as a personal record on both counts, thanks to some wonderful new people in my life and the chance to discover some of the extraordinary food, wine, and traditions of Umbria. This eno-gastron-amica weekend extravaganza, as I’m calling it, had my heart bursting, my waistline bulging, and my culinary curiosity on overdrive. Too many for a comprehensive list, the flavors and stories I encountered across that idyllic swathe of Italian landscape stretching from Perugia past Assisi and on towards Montefalco included Vernaccia di Cannarra and a funfetti cake called ciaramicola, made specially by a local pastry chef for Easter breakfast; Sagrantino and Grecchetto (enough said); the chance witnessing of a quirky tradition involving locals of all ages cracking eggs in the Montefalco piazza as part of an ancient local tournament of sorts (stay tuned); a gorgeous, sinfully creamy pâté (nonna’s cherished recipe, naturally); and an Umbrian Easter specialty called torta di pasqua that about changed my life (imagine the fluffy, soft sponge of a pandoro but savory and filled with cheese!). Oh, and then there was the whole ‘Christmas at Easter’ thing, a feast, well….precisely as its name suggests! Complete with Christmas pudding and secret santa.

Though not easy to label any one of the dishes I tasted in Umbria as the ‘best’, an indisputable contender was an intriguing and lovely-to-behold starter served at the Osteria della Piazzetta dell’Erba in Assisi. The carciofo croccante, or crunchy artichoke, caught my and my friend’s attention as we sat outside in the tiny piazza where once a small yet thriving vegetable market was held, now reduced to a lone vegetable vendor named Novella, known and by all accounts beloved by locals (I wanted her to adopt me).

Novella, vegetable vendor in Assisi’s Piazzetta dell’Erba

The solemn Good Friday procession making its way along the nearby medieval thoroughfare had dominated my attention until the moment that artichoke arrived. At the first bite, I knew it was something to consider more closely (and taste again), so the next day we returned to the Osteria, where chef Matteo Bini kindly took a few minutes from his busy day to tell me about this dish.  As its name promises, this artichoke is, firstly, crunchy. But then, like any masterful texture combination must do, it moves from an outer crunchiness to the tenderness of an artichoke cooked to perfection in the alla romana fashion: seasoned and steamed, in this case with the addition of capers and garlic. It is then filled with a potato mash flavored with anchovy, wrapped in filo dough, baked until the dough turns crunchy and delicate, and served on creamy pecorino fondue with pretty aromatic petals and herbs.

Nothing pleases me like young Italians succeeding in the world of food.  With this one delightful dish—which achieves that rare and brilliant balance of superb flavor combination, pleasing texture contrasts, esthetic flair and artistry—Chef Matteo, together with wife Francesca, brother Daniele, and the Osteria della Piazzetta dell’Erba team, managed to catch and hold my attention. I will certainly be returning for my third (and possibly fourth!) carciofo croccante.

osteria in the little ‘greens square’

Pan di Ramerino: Rosemary & Raisin Buns for Holy Thursday

pan di ramerino at a Florentine bakery

pan di ramerino at a Florentine bakery

While walking through Florence this morning, I happened to catch a snippet of conversation in front of a local bakery: ‘Yes, actually, the priest was here this morning to bless the bread’. Pausing, I noticed the tray of soft, round buns flecked with zibbibo raisins and rosemary sprigs, and remembered—today is Holy Thursday. And in the Florentine tradition, come the morning of giovedì santo, parish priests visit area bakeries to bless the just-baked rosemary bread known as pan di ramerino (ramerino is rosemary in the Tuscan dialect).

More or less the Italian version of the hot cross bun, pan di ramerino is around throughout much of the year, yet remains highly associated with Holy Thursday in particular. While contemporary pan di ramerino has surely evolved from its medieval prototype—consider the addition of sugar, for instance—the ingredients used traditionally to make pan di ramerino continue to account for its symbolic appearance at this point in the liturgical cycle. Beyond the obvious cross design, the rosemary and rosemary oil recall the aromatic oils applied to the body of Jesus Christ on the cross, much like the traditional Roman focaccia with fennel seeds, also prepared this time of year. Then, the simple addition of milk and eggs to pan di ramerino renders the buns soft and light, transforming the bread from one that would otherwise have been ‘lean’ to one fitting the close of the Lenten fast and the transition to the festal Easter period.

'Today, Holy Thursday: Blessed Rosemary Buns'

‘Today, Holy Thursday: Blessed Rosemary Buns’

La Notte di San Giovanni: Midsummer Food & Drink Rituals in Italy

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Last September I happened to pass through York on my way to Cornwall. Most of you will surely sense, without even a glance at a map of the United Kingdom, a hint of folly in such a statement. Cornwall via York? From Italy? Well, yes, and I had my reasons. Namely, the chance to participate in a wonderful event hosted by the Folklore Society, where I presented on the topic of Italian midsummer food and drink rituals. The presentation and text are available online for consultation.

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Le Lumache di San Giovanni: Roman Stewed Snails for the Summer Solstice

10251947_10202869805018650_413816505403205119_n Tonight in various quarters of the city, countless people of Rome will enjoy the culinary specialty le lumache di San Giovanni, or St John’s snail stew. A tradition with origins in the ancient Roman festivities held this time of year—in honor of the goddesses Fortuna and Concordia, for example—fare la lumacata on the night of June 24 is a fascinating midsummer ritual millennia in the making.  Why snails? Some will point immediately to the obvious reasons: snails are cheap, in abundance this time of year, fairly nutritious and, when prepared well, rather tasty. True enough, yet nothing this curious is ever without an intriguing backstory!

The eating of snails has long been equated with apotropaic powers, of invoking protection against evil as well as harmony between the sexes. The physiology of the snail accounts for much of the lore and beliefs attached to it. The ancient Romans saw in the snail’s horns, or le corna, a representation of negativity, discord and even evil forces, possibly given the easy analogy between the ‘eyes’ of the snail and il malocchio. During summer solstice festivities, the so-called concordia or pax banquets, Romans who ate snails believed they were thwarting misfortune, that in the ingesting of the embodiment of discord, the horns, they were in fact courting Concordia, or harmony.

(Those familiar with the gesto delle corna will note a connection here. But that’s another post entirely.)

There’s also a strong relationship between snail consumption and matters nuptial and erotic, much of which is, again, related to the snail’s appearance and behaviors. One can easily grasp the imaginative link between the phallic horns of the snail and male sexuality. Here the eating of snails still equates with protection: a man who eats the snail horns may avert infidelity, colloquially known in Italy as mettere le corna (cuckold = il cornuto). Not so obvious is the female side: the snail as a lunar symbol, associated with rebirth and regeneration, whose cyclical waxing and waning (of the corna) represents female rather than male qualities. Consuming the snail becomes an auspicious act for both sexes then, and in some rural areas is still believed to promote marital (or perhaps merely sexual?) harmony. (By the way, in the Roman dialect, the words for snail, ciumaca or ciumachella, are also affectionate slang terms for una bella ragazza, or a pretty girl.)

Centuries later, in a different cultural context, the ritualistic Roman snail-eating on June 24 evolved into a Catholic legend. According to the tale, some medieval Romans witnessed the ghost of Herodias, mother of Salome, calling together a coven of witches in the Lateran fields on St John’s Eve (also known as the Night of the Witches). Seeking the saint’s intervention, they took to eating snails in the piazza, clearly having inherited their ancestors’ belief in the snail’s protective powers. Over time, the location (St John Lateran Basilica) became indelibly connected to le lumache di San Giovanni, with Romans coming to the church square every June 24 to enjoy a  pot of snails cooked in tomato, garlic, and herbs at local osterie. This is also where snail vendors  in the 19th century set up their stands:

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Francesco Duscio tells us in his book La Romanesca that part of the magic of San Giovanni was the power of reconciliation a pot of snail stew offered, that friends, lovers, or relatives who had fought in the previous year achieved, in the literal devouring of their accumulated resentments—the snail horns—harmony and mutual forgiveness.

Buon San Giovanni and Buona Lumacata!

Chef Andreas Schwienbacher: Dreaming Big, with Flair and Focus, in Alto-Adige

Andreas Schwienbacher, 24, Head Chef at the 5-Star Alpenpalace

Andreas Schwienbacher, 24, Head Chef at the 5-Star Alpenpalace

Tucked away in the northernmost part of Italy in the Valle Aurina (Ahrntal in German), the Alpenpalace Deluxe Hotel and Spa Resort is a dreamy, elegant locale that manages an at-once über-luxurious and family-like ambiance. Here in this paradise for lovers of all things Alpine—outdoor activities galore, fascinating architecture, customs, and history, and pristine everything—I had an opportunity to chat with Andreas Schwienbacher, the talented head chef of the resort’s restaurant.

Originally from Lana near Bolzano, 24-four-year-old Schwienbacher is the youngest head chef in a 5-star hotel in the Alto-Adige regionno small accomplishment and one he is justifiably proud of. Having dreamed of becoming a chef since age 14, Andreas worked in various restaurants and hotels around the world, including nearby Austria and far-flung Australia, before taking on his role at the resort. Like many chefs, Andreas gives much credit to his experience working in the kitchens of a Michelin-starred restaurant, perhaps even more so than his training.  

Talking with a professional chef is always enlightening, and tends to challenge if not upset altogether many of one’s homespun cooking preconceptions. A few minutes chatting with this focused, attentive, serious-minded young man was no exception. Some topics covered included molecular gastronomy spheres; the use of kaolin to create, among other things, edible ‘stones’ (small boiled potatoes coated in the clay-like, neutral-tasting substance); plates adorned with non-comestible items like pebbles and pine cones, to evoke the forest and natural splendor of the area; and beef (the very best must be imported from outside Italy, an inconvenient truth to we of the buy local mindset, but one I’ve heard attested to more than once by pro chefs).

The young chef’s dreams and future plans? To create an intimate, 5-table gourmet dining experience (a restaurant within a restaurant, if you will, opening soon). And to earn 15 Gault & Millau points one day. Ambitious? Have a look at a sampling of creations by this extraordinary culinary talent, and then decide.

A three-butter starter: chervil, truffle, French:

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A prosciutto ‘rose’ wrapped around a black-olive sphere, with summer herbs and flowers, a crunchy prosciutto crumble, and decorative touches from the forest:

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Beef tenderloin with baby carrots, a crumble of hazelnuts, butter and flour, a kaolin-coated new potato ‘stone’, and exquisite jus:

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Detail showing the (sometimes forest-themed) creativity and whimsy the chef puts into his dishes:

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Close-up of the truffle butter. Because truffle butter deserves a close-up!:

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Head Chef Andreas Schwienbacher (right) with Chef Garde Manger Michael Sartor

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Another look at that stunning prosciutto ‘rose’:

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And I’ll leave you with a pretty view, in case you still need convincing:

a view of the Alpenpalace grounds

a view of the Alpenpalace grounds

 

Schüttelbrot, South Tyrol’s ‘Shaken’ Bread

mini Schüttelbrot

mini Schüttelbrot

Schüttelbrot is a traditional bread of South Tyrol flavored with caraway seeds, coriander, fennel or aniseed, typically served with speck and cheese as an afternoon snack. This savory, crisp flatbread takes its name from the shaping method: after the dough rounds are rolled out and transferred to a baking sheet, the Bäckermeister literally shakes them into shape (schütteln = to shake). The unique flatness of this bread, called pane scosso in Italian, allows for easy storage in a slotted wooden shelf (pictured below), which together with the crisp, fast-drying texture ensures a long shelf-life—the perfect bread for farmers and peasants in the Alpine winter. Though usually around ten inches in diameter, Schüttelbrot can also be made in small, cracker-like rounds (pictured above).

Schüttelbrot storage

Meet Hugo, The Alpine Spritz

mystery child Hugo the Spritz

mystery child Hugo the Spritz

The ‘Hugo’ (or Ugo, as our h-sound-challenged Italian friends pronounce it), sometimes called Hugo Spritz or Alpine Spritz, originated in the northern Italian region Alto-Adige, an area intimately familiar with herbal use in both culinary and medicinal matters, and one where the elderberry plant thrives in summer. From the genus Sambucus, elderberry is a hardy, fast-growing flowering bush widespread throughout Italy and Europe. Sambucus nigra—European elderberry or simply Sambuco in Italian, among other namesbears edible-once-cooked berries used in making jams and sauces; while from their small white flowers a delicious, delicate cordial is obtained—this syrup being the star ingredient in the Hugo Spritz, which I had the fortune to learn about and taste last night at fabulous Borgo San Lorenzo wine bar and restaurant Passaguai, thanks to the knowledge and generosity of a lovely new acquaintance. As she explained, elderflower cordial is not to be confused with (that bottled nastiness known as) Sambuca, similar only in name to sciroppo di Sambuco. To demonstrate her point, she ordered up a Hugo for us to taste (yay!):

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As with so many Italian specialties, a touch of rivalry characterizes Hugo’s birth-story, particularly intriguing given that the two barmen in contention for inventor credit both hail from South Tyrol, and neither seems ready to renounce his claim on Hugo. Was it Roland Gruber who, while working in a wine bar in Naturns near Bolzano created the Hugo some 10 years ago? Very possibly, yet apparently Gruber named the Hugo without any particular reason, a fluky bit of inadvertence I find a little dubious, frankly. There’s also some debate as to whether Gruber originally used elderflower or another type of herb cordial. Could it have been Filippo Debertol of the Val di Fassa area, who has said he started mixing elderflower cordial with wine, seltzer, and mint around the same time? Debertol’s story would seem to hold up better under scrutiny: young Debertol named the drink after an elderly gentleman who would visit the family’s Alpine cabin, always bringing with him a gift of his own homemade elderflower syrup. The old man’s name? Hugo, of course.

(An aside: While researching today, I came across a discussion (in Italian) on Wikipedia from late 2013, in which Debertol’s attempts to modify the Italian entry for Hugo (cocktail) were repeatedly removed, with the explanation ‘your changes reflect something completely different from what the sources indicate, and for this reason I have restored the prior text.’ See below)

Wiki

Italians love their food (and drink) debates, and this one is not going away any time soon, I imagine. No matter. The important thing is someone invented this delightful concoction, which I highly recommend adding to your summer cocktail repertoire.

hugo3

Ingredients per drink

6 cl Prosecco
6 cl seltzer
3 cl elderflower cordial
fresh mint leaves

Instructions

Put ice in the glass. Pour in the Prosecco and cordial, followed by the seltzer. Stir gently. Garnish with fresh mint and a lemon slice (optional).

a bottle of elderflower cordial

a bottle of elderflower cordial

Asparagus With Boznersauce, A ‘Sauce from Bolzano’

'salsa bolzanina'

‘salsa bolzanina’

Boznersauce is a springtime specialty from Bolzano in Alto-Adige, the Italian province that together with Trentino forms one of Italy’s five autonomous regions, Trentino-Alto-Adige. Annexed from Austria by the Kingdom of Italy at the end of World War I, Alto-Adige—Südtirol in German or South Tyrol to English speakers—has retained its culturally Austrian identity in the decades since, despite an aggressive Fascist-era ‘Italianization’ program and a significant influx of Italians in the post-WWII period. Officially part of Italy for nearly a century, today Alto-Adige is still comprised predominantly of native German speakers, though Italian and German are both official languages.

The intersection of Italian and Germanic influences in South Tyrol characterizes many aspects of local culture, including cuisine. Further shaped by Viennese and Hungarian traditions, Alto-Adige’s culinary scene has earned a reputation in recent years as a gastronomic mecca, with 23 Michelin stars as of 2016. Interestingly, many non-Italian dishes, items like speck, würstel, strudel, and knödel, have entered the Italian national food canon via Alto-Adige.

The people of the Bolzano area enjoy this hollandaise-like sauce, whose name means ‘of Bozen’ (German for Bolzano), alongside fresh asparagus during Easter Sunday lunch.

Ingredients for 4

2 bunches green or white asparagus
1 cup dry white wine
2 cups water

For the sauce:
4 eggs, hard-boiled
100 ml ‘light’ olive oil or seed oil of choice
1 Tbsp white wine vinegar
1 Tbsp mustard
1 Tbsp fresh parsley, minced
1-2 Tbsp fresh chives, chopped
3 Tbsp beef broth
¼ tsp white pepper
½ tsp salt

Instructions

To make the Boznersauce, start by boiling the eggs for 8 minutes and remove from the water immediately. Heat the broth and keep warm.

When cool enough to handle, peel the eggs. Slice them in half and remove the yolks, placing the yolks in a bowl and setting the whites aside. Add the vinegar, mustard, broth, salt and pepper to the yolks. Whisk until creamy (a few lumps are fine). Slowly drizzle in the oil while whisking continuously until you have a thick, smooth cream. Add the minced parsley and combine. Chop the egg white to a medium-fine mixture. Add to the egg cream and combine. Set aside at room temp while you make the asparagus.

Bring the water and wine to a simmer. Snap the tough ends off the asparagus and cook in the simmering water for 5 minutes and remove promptly. Arrange the asparagus on serving dishes and place generous scoops of the Boznersauce over them. Dust with the chopped chive.

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Saint Agatha’s Olives

olivette di Sant'Agata

olivette di Sant’Agata

Agatha of Sicily is an early Christian martyr and one of the most highly venerated virgin saints in Catholicism, especially so in Catania (and Palermo), where a festival in her honor takes place in the days leading up to and culminating on February 5, her feast day. Agatha celebrations include elaborate rites and processions, lights, costumes and chants. And feasting, of course. Today, one of the common treats made in honor of Saint Agatha are minne di sant’agata—pretty, oddly anatomically correct cakes shaped and decorated to looked like breasts, Agatha’s attribute, as her various tortures included having her breasts cut off.

(Has anyone else noticed a grim pattern of recreating a tortured saint’s attributes in foodstuffs? Consider as well the fluffy, saffrony lussekatter, whose raisin decorations represent Saint Lucy’s gouged-out eyes…)

Thankfully, the narrative of this particular recipe is less harrowing. One of the many stories about the saint recounts an episode involving olives: fleeing the soldiers of Quinctianus—the Roman proconsul who, failing to win the young virgin’s affections, had her tortured, sent to a brothel, and burnt at the stake—Agatha stopped to tie her shoe (yes, tie her shoe!). While she knelt, a wild olive tree sprouted up before her. The tree concealed Agatha from her pursuers and is said to have provided her with some needed nourishment. Southern Italians remember this miraculous, temporary reprieve bestowed on Agatha with these olivette di sant’agata.

Ingredients

200 grams blanched almonds
200 grams sugar
1 tablespoon rum
2-3 drops green food coloring
water
extra sugar for coating

Instructions

Grind the almonds with 100 grams of the sugar in a food processor until you have a fine flour. Set aside.

In a saucepan, heat the remaining 100 grams of sugar with a couple tablespoons of water, stirring frequently, until you have a smooth syrup. Test by dropping a tiny bit onto a plate and then tilting the plate. The syrup is ready if it runs slightly down the plate and then sticks.

Remove the syrup from the heat. Add the green food coloring to the syrup and combine. Next add the ground almond mixture to the syrup along with the rum and combine well (this could take a few minutes). Transfer the mixture to a glass bowl. When cool enough to touch (but still warm), knead until you have a uniform, slightly sticky paste. Form olive shapes and roll in sugar. I used sugar that I’d colored slightly (optional), by adding a drop of coloring to the sugar and grinding briefly in a spice grinder. Leave the olives out to dry for a couple hours before serving.

The recipe can be halved or doubled.