A taste of Tuscany

first_imgThere are some meals you never forget. It might be hard to recall specific flavours but you will always remember how the dish made you feel; a sense of epiphany followed by an overwhelming feeling of sadness when the dish is over; oh the unfairness of it all. Mine was,There are some meals you never forget. It might be hard to recall specific flavours but you will always remember how the dish made you feel; a sense of epiphany followed by an overwhelming feeling of sadness when the dish is over; oh the unfairness of it all. Mine was at a tiny closet sized restaurant in Venice called Osteria Ae Cravate.At the time we only knew it as the restaurant where ties hung from wooden rafters on the ceiling; I was much too famished to even glance at the sign board and after, too distracted by the assortment of five dishes showcased in a glass top bar that also served as a makeshift kitchen. I glanced at the chef and he said, “the food not here, coming.” We had little choice but to wait as our only option was an elegant alfresco right across from us, which sported a reviled jaunty logo — ‘Menu Turistico’. So we opted to stay and were each given a glass of Soave, a white wine that has since become a favourite. A couple of glasses in, a man in a hat dashed in holding a bag and handed it over to the reticent chef who instantly emptied it. We watched as fresh mussels clattered into a steel bowl. We then heard a sizzle and detected the scent of the wonderful reducing wine and garlic. In about ten minutes there was a plate of steaming spaghetti interwoven with chunks of tomato, clams and half open mussels topped with sprigs of parsley.advertisementThe first bite was a revelation, an explosion of flavours. My idea of Italian food — chewy pasta drowned in heavy tomato sauces served with melted cheese on doughy bread, had been turned on its head. This was clean unsullied brilliance. I licked the bowl clean to ensure that every bit of that sauce had been eaten.The original Garlic BreadItalo Calvino said, ‘To know a territory, you need to eat it,’ and nowhere is it truer than in India or Italy where the concept of a homogenous cuisine is a foreign invention. Much like Indian cuisine, the food of Italy is regional — Florentine cooking, Tuscan cuisine or Venetian but never Italian. Don’t be surprised if you get an icy glare in a trattorie in Siena because you ask for Spaghetti Bolognese. Much of the brilliance of regional cuisine often stems from creativity and resourcefulness in the age of frugality; so much so that Tuscan cuisine is often called a poor man’s food. Take for instance — the humble garlic bread.True garlic bread or Bruschetta (pronounced broo-sketta) is perfection. It is not copious amounts of butter and minced garlic on a French baguette. Crusty Tuscan bread was born out of an imposition of a salt tax during a time when city-states were at war in Tuscany. Consequently, families decided to forego salt and make Pane sciocco (insipid bread) that they found never went moldy or gluey when dipped in liquid. When the bread went stale, they would toast thick slices of it in wood fired ovens, rub fresh garlic over it and douse it with intense green cold pressed olive oil. Perfection.Mangiar Bene, Stare Bene. Eat well, Be wellMy love for Tuscan cuisine began when I spent a week in Montalcino, a small village located in the Siena province of Southern Tuscany, to research my novel — Fade Into Red, which revolves around the buying of a vineyard. I hoped to participate in a harvest and I chose Montalcino because it is home to the most revered of all Tuscan wines, the Brunello di Montalcino. Alas tightening immigration laws meant that it wasn’t as simple as picking up a phone and asking to be part of their picking squad. Despite many attempts by my persistent landlady, I was faced with five days of nothing to do but explore and eat. She smiled and said: “La Forza del destino.” Everything is fated and so I decided to camp out in this fortified village for a week before the fates directed me further.Like many Etruscan villages, Montalcino is highly fortified and so perfectly preserved. I spent my days exploring picture perfect alleyways dotted with exquisite flower boxes and photographing butchers slice through parma ham and create food as authentic as it was centuries ago. However there is no escaping tourist traps, even in a village like this, but I eventually stumbled, or rather tumbled down a flight of stairs, upon Taverna Grapollo Blu where I discovered Pinci (pici) with Ragu, a Tuscan classic that would eventually become my characters favorite meal. Pici pasta comprises of thick, uneven strands of handmade eggless pasta coated in boar ragu, a meaty sauce that holds off on the tomato letting the nutty pecorino shine. As I tucked into my new favorite for the third night in a row, I was joined by Luciano, the owner, who pulled a chair and told me he’d heard I wanted to pick grapes. My mouth full, I nodded, marveling at the loquacity of small towns. He smiled and added, ‘Done. You will be picked up tomorrow by my daughter.’advertisementEarly next morning, Anna, who looked like she’d skipped off the cover of a fashion magazine, picked me up. After dropping her son off to school and grabbing an espresso, we made our way past rolling hills to their family vineyard, Villa Le Prata, where I was given another shot of espresso, a pair of shears and taught how to pick luscious cerulean Sangiovese grapes — handle a bunch like you would a baby’s head, all in that order. At noon I was treated to Chicken Cacciatore (hunters chicken), a recipe that traditionally featured game simmered in a white wine and fresh tomatoes, served with the house Rosso — a wine with a lighter body than that of the Brunello. Despite having met them a mere three hours ago, I was seated at the family table with other pickers and the family matriarch, as house cats weaved through my ankles looking for scraps. We spent the afternoon sorting out grapes and preparing the must (freshly pressed grapes that include seeds and skin) after which I watched the sun go down with another glass of Rosso.Home is where the garlic is aplentyAfter a weeklong sojourn in Montalcino, I set out for the Chianti region of Ruffina where I would spend seven days with Paola, the inimitable biker chef, at the Tuscookany cooking school. Cooking vacations are immersion experiences that can be quite overwhelming if you don’t fancy cooking 4-5 hours a day. Our mornings were spent exploring the countryside or reading in front of a roaring fire but our afternoons were like an episode of Masterchef Australia. We were chopping, cutting, blanching and baking as Paola screamed -“Alora! Open your fantasy.” I worked with ingredients I had never even seen before — Guinea fowl, beef tongue and squid ink. I made spinach pasta and learnt how to use wine in food — an immeasurable takeaway. But I also learnt how to make a rose by peeling a tomato — I haven’t done it since. The intensity isn’t for everyone. One honeymooning couple was startled they were to spend an hour mincing garlic for the Garlic Oil. Tuscan kitchens always have a small pot of marinated garlic in olive oil. In fact if you happen to have unannounced guests, there is no faster appetizer. Chop up some plump red tomatoes, deseed them if you have the time and marinate them for about five minutes in the garlic olive oil mixture.advertisementSpread on the aforementioned garlic bread and sprinkle some basil on top and Alora! You have the perfect tomato Bruschetta that will have them coming back. But there is a cooking vacation for everyone. Culinary explorers can opt for intense residential courses while wanderers can choose short sessions in a city which allow you to head to a museum in the morning and attend a jazz concert at night. Prefer chocolate to onions? Choose a dessert session and learn to make the perfect puff pastry. Even if you’re not aiming to be the next Nigella or become the Martha Stewart among your friends, a deeper understanding of a regions cuisine might become your most valuable souvenir, a catalyst that will catapult you back to a moment you cherished in a heartbeat.Candy pasta filled with mozzarella and eggplant(Caramelle Verdi con cufala emalanzane)Ingredients for the filling- 2 large eggplants- 200 gms bufala mozzarella cheese (post squeezing out water)- 2 handful basil leaves (Italian basil)- 50 gms Parmesan cheese- 1 tbsp chopped parsley- 1 clove garlic- Oregano, olive oil, salt and pepper to taste- Fresh green pasta dough using pureed spinachIngredients for generic Pasta Dough (La Sfoglia)- 4 tbsp olive oil- 4 eggs- 500 gms flourProcedure for Pasta Dough- Sieve the flour onto a working surface and make a hole in the centre- Place the eggs in the hole and pour in the oil. If you want to add colouring, this is when you take the spinach puree andmix it lightly in the egg and the oil- Beat the eggs and oil together with a fork, mixing in the flour gradually while doing this- Once all the flour has been incorporated, knead the dough- Cut the dough in half and make two medium size balls- Let the dough stand for about an hour covered with a dry cloth- Use a rolling pin to roll it out as thin as you can. Make sure you don’t dry it out Procedure for filling- Preheat the oven to 180 degree C- Peel the eggplant, cut into 1 cm thick slices and bake in oven with a little olive oil. When cooked, chop (not puree)- Cut the mozzarella in slices, drain well with a paper towel and chop with a knife.- Mix the eggplants, mozzarella cheese, parsley, chopped basil, parmesan cheese oregano, salt and pepper in a bowl- Roll out the dough, spoon the filling on it, cut in rectangular sizes of 3cm x 7 cm Fold the dough over the filling, pinch well and close giving it a candy formLa Salsa- Peel 6 ripe tomatoes by first soaking them in hot water- Cut them in fillets and cook in a frying pan with oil, the chopped garlic clove, salt and pepper for about 10 minutesSuggestions- Don’t seal the pasta with water. If it is made properly it will stick together. Make sure the candy ends are not too long otherwise you will have thick chewy pasta- Serve the ravioli with tomato sauce and sprinkle the leftover sliced basil julienne on the topGuinea fowl with vin santo and porcini mushrooms(Faraona al Vin Santo e Funghi Porcini)Ingredients- 1 Guinea fowl, cleaned and washed(Substitute with a full chicken with skin)- 1 handful sage leaves- 2 tbsp garlic oil (Finely chopped garlic marinated in extra virgin olive oil)- Vin Santo (can be replaced by Port)- Olive oil- 1 medium red onion- 80 gms dry porcini- Salt and Pepper to Taste- Chopped ParsleyProcedure- Chop the onion and sage and fry in a sauce pan together with olive oil- Cut the Guinea fowl in medium sized pieces and add to the pan adjusting with salt and pepper. Fry on a medium heat until the guinea fowl becomes a golden brown colour- When the bottom of the pan starts to dry out, add a glass of Vin Santo or Port and continue to cook for at least another 40 minutes- Add more Vin Santo/Port during this process so that it does not become too dry. Be generous with the Port. The idea is to have a nice glaze on top of the guinea fowl or chicken- Clean the mushrooms and cut in slices- Heat the garlic oil and add a little more olive oil in a frying pan- Add the porcini, parsley and cook quickly- Add the mushroom to the guinea fowl and mix and cook together for a final 5 minutes.Barshikar is a travel writer and co-founder of the literary blog, The Caterpillar Cafe.Fade Into Red is her debut novel. Random House India Price Rs 399last_img

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