Tag Archives: food profiles

Mugello Marvels: Vino in Tavola

Andrea Guidotti in front of his fabulous bottega, Vino in Tavola

Andrea Guidotti in front of his fabulous bottega, Vino in Tavola

Mugello Marvels explores the flavors and traditions of the Mugello region of northeast Tuscany, with an emphasis on local chefs, restaurants, food fairs, and events.

I’m happy to launch this new category, Mugello Marvels, with a post dedicated to what is arguably my favorite spot in all the Mugello. Vino in Tavola is a convivial Italian bottega-style shop and deli located in the heart of Borgo San Lorenzo, a place locals frequent come the lunch hour to enjoy a panino and a glass of wine at the cozy counter. It’s also popular at the aperitivo hour.

crostini e vino, a perfect snack

crostini e vino, a perfect snack

Others come here to fill up hefty vessels with choice vino sfuso (think wine on tap), carefully selected by shop owner and connoisseur of tasty stuff, Andrea Guidotti, or to browse the selection of gourmet products, many of which are rarely if ever found in Italian markets. Which leads me to a digression…

I’ve written elsewhere about the lack of culinary diversity in Italy. Now, before you Italophiles start hollering about regional differences, note that I’m not talking about the various distinct traditions from region to region within Italy. I mean, rather, international cuisine and the foodways of others, about which Italians can be mighty suspicious and even disdainful. You folks reading this from America or the UK might not realize just how much you take for granted when shopping for, say, a specific type of cheese, since your favorite market no doubt offers not only a good selection of French and Italian cheeses but also those made in your own and other countries. Finding a good French chevrè or English cheddar in Italy is akin to a treasure hunt. Seriously, to judge by the paltry selection at large Italian supermarket chains, you’d think Brie was the only cheese France had to offer—a generic, underwhelming Brie at that.

I come from a country where even the most unexceptional of food stores will have an entire aisle dedicated to products from around the world.  Where I now live, those items, few and second-rate, are found tucked away in a sad, meter-wide section labeled ‘ethnic’ foods: a jar of Pace brand salsa, some rice noodles, perhaps Worcestershire sauce, a can of Uncle Ben’s beans. In some larger Italian cities, so-called ethnic foods stores do offer more in the way of variety, but at exorbitant prices and erratic availability. Sure, I can get cilantro or lemongrass, if I’m willing to travel two hours to visit one of these negozi etnici. Maybe I’ll pick up a rock-hard avocado that’s travelled from South Africa or Israel, if I don’t mind spending about 3 euros (the avocado is completely misunderstood in Italy). Closer to home, I could get lucky at our local grocery store, if I’m able to persuade the gal stocking shelves that a powder made from dried garlic is not a figment of my foreign imagination. An anecdote: once a French woman on holiday  stopped me at the supermarket: ‘Where is the salted butter?’ she asked. When I answered that it was very hard to come by—both of us eyeing the thirty-some brands of unremarkable Italian-made unsalted butter—she thought surely we’d not understood each other. C’est bizarre! A nearby Italian woman chimed in, suggesting a shop that might have salted butter—in another town.

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Plaisir au Chablis from Burgundy and Le Brebiou from the French Pyrenees

Living in this land of culinary insularity has meant mastering, or at least getting comfortable with, the art of the work-around—growing cilantro and other ‘exotic’ herbs and making buttermilk and drying and grinding garlic for powder—which might seem resourceful but is really a time-sucking drag. Sometimes you need an ingredient that doesn’t require weeks of advance planning, you know? This brings me back to Vino in Tavola.

I wouldn’t call Vino in Tavola an ethnic store. Yet the selection of rare and international items Andrea stocks makes it truly unique among shops. He cultivates relationships with trusted wine-makers and producers well beyond Tuscany, and the results of his research and efforts can be seen in every square inch of his meticulously-kept, quaint, friendly place of business. Browsing the shelves and chatting with Andrea about newly arrived items is always a pleasure.  Especially the cheeses.

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gruyère, raw goat’s milk robiola, and English cheddar – heaven!

Vino in Tavola is also great for gifts. You can put together a lovely holiday basket here, choosing from among the excellent Italian and French wines, artisanal beers, and liquors.

vino

Italian and French wines and champagnes

And here’s a sampling of other items you’ll find at Vino in Tavola:

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Escargots in Borgo San Lorenzo? Wonder of wonders!

colatura di Cetara

colatura di Cetara, the dreamy, anchovy-based sauce recalling garum of ancient Roman cuisine

spezie

spezie

a few 'ethnic' items

‘ethnic’ rice varieties

uncommon snack foods

uncommon snack foods

'nduja from Spilinga - aka the real deal

‘nduja from Spilinga – aka the real deal

I always feel a bit of a thrill when I walk through the doors at Vino in Tavola, wondering what new, tasty item will have arrived on Andrea’s shelves since my last visit. Sometimes I leave the shop with ideas for the blog, such as this post on the ‘purgatory beans’ of Gradoli, which I learned about thanks to a little bag of these storied white beans I spotted at Vino in Tavola. And I always leave with a bottle of wine or two, some butter—French and salted—and a smile.

Vino in Tavola
Piazza Dante, 22
Borgo San Lorenzo (FI)
tel: 055 845 5212
info@vinointavola.com

Viva Nonna Leo! Genovese Woman Opens Home Restaurant on her 96th Birthday

Leonilda Tomasinelli, who turns 96 on April 18, here pictured making pesto

Leonilda Tomasinelli, who turns 96 on April 18, here pictured making pesto

Home restaurants, similar to supper/dining clubs and underground/pop-up restaurants, have been taking off in Italy in recent years. While regulated by the Italian government, home restaurants are remarkably uncomplicated to set up here, at least for now. Home restaurateurs currently operate like freelancers; their profits may not exceed the yearly allowance for this earnings category (about 5,000 euros), yet no special permit or license is required. All you need is a kitchen, a means to promote your business and take reservations, and, of course, cooking skills impressive enough to draw paying customers to your home. The movement so far appears fuelled in large part by consumer demand for reasonably-priced, quality dining out options. Not unlike the sagra then, in a way home restaurants reflect that so Italian belief in food—good, tasty, inexpensive food—as a birthright. Although, one Italian media source did refer to them as typical ‘hipster’ nonsense. That made me laugh.

With at least a decade’s head start on Italy, the alternative restaurant movements in the U.S. and U.K., on the other hand, are today driven more by the desire of aspiring (or sometimes veteran) chefs to create and experiment in a restriction-free venue, while garnering a following of diners seeking novel, cutting-edge eating experiences. At times these rave-reminiscent food events beget an aura of exclusivity, as attested to by their secret or unconventional locations (think sleek renovated warehouses and chic flats over homely dining rooms) as well as the figure on the final check—and in this respect differ quite a lot from their Italian counterparts, generally. The press has described customers willing to overcome the obstacles required to dine at pop-ups and undergrounds as adventurous, novelty-seeking, avant-garde, and so on. Personally, I smell a touch of pretentiousness in the whole business, yet to be fair should withhold judgement until I’ve had a chance to attend one. No doubt they are a great opportunity for gifted chefs.

Back to the boot. Making headlines this week is a wonderful story about Leonilda Tomasinelli, who is launching her own home restaurant in Genoa’s Albaro neighborhood tomorrow, which also happens to be her 96th birthday. Born in 1919, ‘Nonna Leo’ was called upon to cook for the family from a very young age (she is the oldest of five sisters). It’s safe to say this gal’s got skills, in short. Her menu will feature Ligurian specialties such as le seppie con i piselli (a savory stew-like soup of squid and peas), lo stoccafisso accomodato (a kind of fish stew), la panissa (hard to describe—like cubes of cooked chickpea flour dough), il tocco alla genovese (a meat ragù), focaccia di Recco (cheese-stuffed focaccia), la farinata (chickpea flour flatbread), and la torta Sacripantina (a cream-filled soft cake). Nonna Leo makes her own pasta, naturally, and uses an old-fashioned mortar and pestle to make her pesto and walnut sauce.

Reservations can be made on Nonna Leo’s website. And here she is talking about why she opened her home restaurant: namely, because we no longer eat or cook like we used to in days past, she says. Everything is premade. Pasta, sauces, bread, soups, et cetera are no longer prepared as they should be—except at home. While holding a 19th-century cookbook of Ligurian cuisine that belonged her grandmother, Nonna Leo says she wants to leave these recipes and traditions to her grandchildren so they will live on. Viva Nonna Leo!

 

A Quest For Perfect Pumpkin Soup

the happy ending

Maybe quest is a slightly romanticized word for what I’ve been doing over the past month—trying to create the perfect pumpkin soup. No matter. A happy outcome is all, achieved today with the discovery of a recipe courtesy of Life’s a Feast . I think what really sets this version of pumpkin soup apart is the addition of paprika and ground nutmeg, and the pinch of brown sugar. Note: I did not make the bread sticks but instead tossed in a handful of croutons. Bread sticks are a better accompaniment, to be sure, so you should make them.

The talent behind Life’s a Feast is Jamie Schler, a France-based American freelance food writer who explores the aspects of food that so intrigue me: traditions, heritage, stories, and so on. Her second blog, Plated Stories, is as gorgeous and gratifying a food blog as one could hope for and (be warned) is a bit addicting. Jamie also writes for Huffington Post. Definitely check out her well-worth-your-time articles. And make this pumpkin soup. Seriously.

La Fagiolina del Lago Trasimeno: The Umbrian Resurrection of an Ancient Legume

la fagiolina

la bella fagiolina, whose multiple colors are a result of biodiversity

The fagiolina del lago Trasimeno is a tiny, multi-colored legume cultivated in the lands around Lake Trasimeno in Umbria since as far back as the third century B.C., an era in which it formed part of the Etruscan diet. In the mid-19th century, however,  the fagiolina faced near-extinction; at a time of increased production of profitable crops such as corn and sunflower, the fagiolina fields, which require manual labor from sowing to reaping, were all but abandoned. But today, thanks to the efforts of farmers such as Flavio Orsini of the Azienda Agraria Orsini, the fagiolina is making a comeback.

About 25 years ago, when many farmers were starting to incorporate new technologies and machinery in cultivation, the Orsini family farmers were looking to the past, to the ancient farming methods of their region. In doing so, they contributed to the resurrection, if you will, of not only the species but its traditional cultivation as well. The beans are planted by hand in the spring and harvested by hand in late summer. The harvest is complex, requiring a knowing eye and firm grasp of the plant’s natural progression: the pods are ready when crisp and pale yellow in color, yet only some pods will be ready at the time of the first picking, in July or August. Daily hand picking continues in this very selective manner until perhaps a week or even two after the first picking, when the final straggler pods are ready. Harvesting ends not according to a day on the calendar, but when the plant begins to weaken and transform. The picked plants are then rolled up like hay bales and used as feed for the farm animals, and the ground is left to rest until early spring. Meanwhile, the pods are sheathed—a manual procedure involving three persons and a machine once used to separate grape skins from pulp, today adapted to separate the legumes from their pods. Then the process of drying the legumes begins.

Cultivating la fagiolina is an arduous business. Little profit or glory can be gleaned from an enterprise of this kind, which makes the Orsini family’s work all the more admirable. While visiting the Orsini Farm during the This is your time Travel Blog Tour, we learned that a full hour of picking yields about a kilogram of beans. After a few hours at the farm, I needed no further convincing of the fagiolina’s special status, and yet it was not until we sat down to a lovely lunch prepared by our hosts that I truly understood what all this hard labor and dedication to old methods was all about: the fagiolina is exquisitely tender, savory, and so pretty to behold (biodiversity accounts for the range of colors). It is rich in fiber, iron, and protein, and when served with quality extra virgin olive oil, makes for a wholesome and tasty dish.

beans3

So those Etruscans were on to something, it would seem. And the Orsini have taken that something to new (lofty and tasty) heights. Bravissimi!

This is the simple, traditional method of making a pot of la fagiolina. Serve with an excellent evoo and grilled crostini. You can liven up the recipe by adding a bit of hot chili pepper (dried or oil) or truffle shavings. I decided to add the cooked fagiolina to a pot of zuppa di vongole, pictured below.

Ingredients for 5 servings

250 grams of fagiolina del Lago Trasimeno
olive oil
salt
water

Instructions

Place the beans in a large pot of abundant cold water and bring to a boil. Boil for about 20 minutes. In the meantime bring another pot of salted water to a boil. After 20 minutes drain the beans and boil them in the next pot for another 30 minutes. Drain, saving some of the water if you want a zuppa-type plate of beans. Drizzle with a top quality oil.

zuppa della fagiolina & vongole

zuppa della fagiolina & vongole

Gelato For A Muse

a cup of la musa, the gelato inspired by Maria Musa's beloved cake

a cup of la musa, the gelato inspired by Maria Musa’s beloved cake

During a special visit to Gelateria La Musa in Orvieto as a participant in the This is your time Travel Blog Tour, I was reminded of one of the things I love most about Italians— call it flair, or an ability to craft-create-design with an impeccable eye towards quality and authenticity. Especially when it comes to culinary matters, Italians seem to possess a kind of innate radar for what constitutes the real deal.

At the heart of this family-run enterprise is Chiara, a young Italian woman who brings together tradition, skill, and scrupulous standards in selecting raw materials for her gelato. Chiara studied Art History at university, yet she was so inspired by her uncle’s dream of making gelato, she chose to learn the craft rather than pursue a career in her field of study. Along with her bright smile and contagious enthusiasm, Chiara exudes a rare confidence for one so young, no doubt a result of her hard-won expertise.

Many of the gelato creations at Gelateria La Musa are inspired by traditional Italian desserts. One in particular is remarkable for both its backstory and pure yumminess. A cake made by Chiara’s grandmother, Maria Musa, is remembered fondly by the family and has become the basis for the  ‘house’ gelato, aptly named ‘la musa‘. It’s a flavor as whimsical as it is delightful, carefully crafted to recreate the harmonious flavor combination of nonna Maria’s beloved cake. Made with a blend of sheep and cow milk ricotta, Sambuca, cinnamon, and dark chocolate, gelato la musa is a taste experience indeed worthy of its name. If you find yourself in Orvieto, make time for a stop at this truly special gelateria, and be sure to ask for ‘the muse’.  

Chiara (right) with her mother, Elisa

Chiara (right) with her mother, Elisa