Archive for category Italy


What we do in Italy, is: Eat. Drink. Make merry. For­get where we put our glasses…. both sorts.

A rowdy group — yoga stu­dents and gen­eral good-time bon viveurs — came round to Santa Lucia last week for a food spree hosted by Suzie Alexan­der and her hus­band Anto­nio Santaniello.

The menu that night con­sisted of warm sour­dough bread made by Suzie, anointed with their freshly pressed olive oil of impec­ca­ble pedi­gree, chick pea and rose­mary soup, ribol­lita (see below for RECIPE), deli­cious nutty pecorino and sub­lime, sub­tle, sweet ricotta — which hith­erto I had always con­sid­ered a sen­sory white hole, a sort of flavourfree spackle use­ful for plug­ging pro­tein short­ages — which they mar­bled with sun­flower honey warmed by the fire. Spritz­ing our taste buds the while with organic apple juice, red Mon­tepul­ciano le Berne, and white wine pro­duced by a trio of artists.

Of course they’re empty

Start­ing as a per­sonal quest for the best and most tooth­some local organic pro­duce, and snow­balling as an ever more com­pli­cated busi­ness, Suzie and Anto­nio began Suzie’s Yard — see less than a year ago, and since then they have been pro­vid­ing Umbri­ans with all the neces­si­ties of the good life sourced within a 40km radius of their home: spelt flour, farro and upmar­ket carbs; fresh organic veges in sea­son, not flown in from Zanz­ibar; unsur­pass­able Chi­an­ina beef as chomped by Roman sol­diers con­quer­ing the world; mmmmm cheese; cit­rus sliv­ers and other gor­geous things drenched in dark­est chocolate.

Cheese made in Heaven

Umbria is in a state of per­ma­nent foodie renais­sance. La nonna, of course began it. Any nonna, doesn’t mat­ter, but woe betide you if your melan­zane alla parmi­giana does not share the iden­ti­cal thick­ness of aubergine slice, con­sis­tency of tomato sauce. Quite rightly, we are all in awe of tres­pass­ing on the culi­nary tra­di­tion that rev­o­lu­tionised French cui­sine from the time of Cather­ine de Medici and which still causes eyes to glaze — all over the world — moist with desire, at the drop of the word ‘pizza’.

A feisty cheese mate, to be approached with caution

But there will always be mav­er­icks, fear­less icon­o­clasts who labour in their kitchens — known as lab­o­ra­to­ries — to per­fect new­fan­gled con­cepts such as jewel-bright, intensely-flavoured velvet-textured purees of pear and mus­tard, straw­berry and corian­der, green tomato and vanilla, red onion and bal­samic vine­gar, apri­cot and saf­fron, which act as star­tling and piquant condi­ments for your tra­di­tional mild, deli­cious sheep’s cheese or ricotta fresh from its whey drain­ing bas­ket. Small, pas­sion­ate pro­duc­ers for whose obses­sions we can all be grate­ful. Thanks to Suzie and Antonio’s research and energy, this event pro­vided a lit­tle bou­quet garni of new flavours, ideas and recipes to chew upon.

Francesca shows you

how a real Italian

Suzie’s Ribol­lita

Recipe serves 8

eats spaghetti


250 g split peas soaked in plenty of water overnight

2 onions, finely chopped

1 dried red chilli crushed

1 cel­ery stalk finely chopped

2 car­rots peeled and chopped small

3 small cloves of gar­lic crushed

small bunch of sage

2 pota­toes peeled and chopped in small cubes

sea salt & freshly ground pepper

125 g farro decor­ti­cato (hulled spelt grains) rinsed

1 tblsp tomato puree

350 ml tomato passata

1 bunch cavolo nero (kale), thick stalks removed, finely chopped

a good Tus­can olive oil to serve

Drain the soaked split peas and rinse, cover in ample cold water, bring to the boil and cook for 1½ hours. Drain once cool.

Cover the bot­tom of a thick soup pan with olive oil and over a low heat sweat the chopped onions, chilli and salt, until soft.

Add cel­ery, car­rot, gar­lic and sage (tie 5 stalks together with cot­ton to make removal eas­ier) and cook on a low heat for 20 min­utes to release flavours.  Add potato & farro and a cou­ple of min­utes later the tomato puree, then the pas­sata, turn up the heat.  Cook for 5 min­utes whilst boil­ing some water on the side. Remem­ber to stir to avoid pota­toes sticking.

Add in the drained cooked split peas and cover with ample hot water, enough for a thick veg­etable broth.  Stir in the cavolo nero and reduce the heat.  Sea­son with salt and pep­per. Cover and cook for at least an hour stir­ring every now and then.

Remove from the heat and let cool com­pletely.  Let the soup stand for a cou­ple of hours for flavours to infuse and reheat before serv­ing and driz­zle with a good extra vir­gin olive oil.

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Under the Tuscan Sun. The Doppelganger

Villa Laura

Under a Tus­can sun­set, as four-square as a child’s drawing

Girlie films – you either love ‘em or hate ‘em. For the tear-streaked ranks of the for­mer, ‘Under the Tus­can Sun’ has all the essen­tials – plucky Frances Mayes (played by Diane Lane) strug­gling out of post-marital despair, clam­ber­ing up the slip­pery and pitfall-strewn path to hap­pi­ness and ful­fill­ment, bat­tling to turn a dream into real­ity – her progress mir­rored in the tri­umphant restora­tion of a neglected but beau­ti­ful Tus­can house. Find­ing the per­fect loca­tion was one of the tough­est things the direc­tor had to do: ‘Most houses of that era have small rooms and low ceil­ings. We needed a believ­able house of mod­est scale but with high ceil­ings to accom­mo­date light­ing and give us room for maneu­ver.’
The 300-year-old villa padronale sat­is­fied all require­ments: a con­ve­niently domes­tic size, half that of most houses of its type, with large rooms, high ceil­ings, fine details. In addi­tion it is a handy three-minute slalom from Cor­tona: a model of the Ital­ian genius for archi­tec­tural restora­tion that does not reduce a liv­ing city to a museum. Among the awestruck tourists check­ing their pix­els and the native camari­eri snatch­ing a smoke out­side their café doors, the city bus­tles with ter­ri­ble art, the most expen­sive antique shop known to man, fre­quent bouts of fancy dress, an excep­tional hat shop and great restau­rants. The trek up to town from Villa Laura earns you four courses, but the gen­tle mean­der back after lunch through the olive trees, with a glit­ter of Lake Trasi­meno and the misty expanse of the Val de Chi­ano in the dis­tance, is the per­fect pre­am­ble to a sybaritic after­noon of som­no­lent nod­ding over ‘Bella Tus­cany’ in the patchy shade beneath the stone pines.

A reg­u­lar, hand­some villa padronale

The present 300-year-old house is full of mys­ter­ies and mar­vels. It stands on the site of a traveler’s inn, built a mil­len­nium ago well out of the city so as to bal­ance hos­pi­tal­ity with a desire to pro­tect the inhab­i­tants of Cor­tona from plagues and dis­eases. A carved stone coat of arms hangs above the road entrance, and the bones of one, Heironymo Vagnucci, rest beneath a mar­ble slab in the tiny chapel.

A wartime sol­diers’ billet

To reach the house you turn off the nar­row road after the dahlia farm and before the cavolo nero, wres­tle with the pad­lock to open the impos­ing gates and saunter along a dap­pled avenue of tall pines and oaks, find­ing your­self finally in a sun­lit open­ing with the almost per­fectly sym­met­ri­cal dou­ble fronted facade of the green-shuttered villa to your right, and the farmer manager’s hand­some house to the left ahead. Below in a shel­tered arc of tall trees are the tea­room with its neo clas­si­cal ped­i­ment, and the ele­gant limon­aia – at present the crum­bling depos­i­tory of a reg­i­ment of empty wine bot­tles.
Walk through the dou­ble front doors of the house beneath the sun­burst fan­light and you would be wise to turn right into the dis­creetly dec­o­rated recep­tion room where God gave Diane Lane his bless­ing in the form of a splot of bird shit to the fore­head – yoghurt and poppy seeds flicked by a sharp-shooting mem­ber of the crew.
This early scene was filmed in muted half-light: the protagonist’s emo­tional progress dur­ing the film was marked by ever increas­ing illu­mi­na­tion. In fact, all the upstairs rooms are bril­liant with light, most hav­ing sun­shine hurl­ing itself through win­dows on two sides.

Sun does fur­nish a room

Down­stairs is another mat­ter, a cat­a­comb of cav­erns where the super­sti­tious vis­i­tor can all too eas­ily envis­age ghostly ser­vants pol­ish­ing pans with salt and sand in the mar­ble sink, heat­ing His Master’s bath­wa­ter in a tow­er­ing cop­per, warm­ing chapped hands at the vast Athena cen­tral heat­ing boiler, and hav­ing bus­ied with lamp black to give a proper sheen to the cast iron, brais­ing wild boar in the mag­nif­i­cent blue and white tiled Fumisti range engi­neered by Busca­gioni & Co.

A grand Ital­ian cooker

This is where vats of toma­toes were once pre­served annu­ally – the giant pan is still there — and the old wood oven is a reminder of the weekly batch of loaves. In those days fields were ploughed using the big white Chi­an­ina cows, which ulti­mately pro­vided Fiorentina steak of leg­endary flavour, and the wine had the addi­tional nuances of assorted feet in the press­ing.
A gen­er­a­tion later, there are uniden­ti­fi­able loom­ing things down here that might make the unwary shriek a lit­tle and pro­vide any small child with a lifetime’s night­mares – a puz­zle of rooms with blocked off entrances and cob­web cur­tained win­dows guar­an­teed to appeal to the latent archi­tect and to get every handyman’s juices flow­ing. Blun­der­ing about in the Sty­gian war­ren below stairs, you are aware that it has poten­tial, and not just as a Ham­mer films loca­tion. It con­nects to the south fac­ing gar­den and the teahouse.

Nowa­days the work­ing kitchen is to the left as you enter the house, in curi­ous prox­im­ity with a min­i­mal bath­room. They strike a some­what banal note, though the unusual absence of cob­webs may com­fort the faint hearted. The three spa­cious main ground floor rooms – once sep­a­rated by doors and walls – now lead through open arches from one to another. Recall the trio of Pol­ish builders burst­ing out through the front door fol­lowed by an explo­sion of plas­ter dust – that was the wall between the din­ing room and the third recep­tion room. By way of a soli­tary con­ces­sion to the paint effects mob, a skil­fully antiqued fake fresco now adorns the remain­ing wall. The direc­tor states firmly that ‘it was impor­tant to me that we not make a home dec­o­rat­ing movie, there was too much story to tell.’

This is the defin­ing char­ac­ter­is­tic of this part of Tus­cany – every peb­ble has a his­tory, exca­va­tions reveal layer after layer of Roman and Etr­uscan lives, there is always too much story to tell. The noble own­ers of Villa Laura are descended from crea­tures of leg­end, both polit­i­cal and cul­tural – Andrea Doria, scourge of French, Span­ish and Bar­bary pirates, Admi­ral of the Genoese fleet and known as ‘father of his coun­try’ was a mater­nal ances­tor, and the 19th cen­tury Teatro del Verme, Milan, com­mem­o­rates another from the father’s side.
The present owner spent child­hood hol­i­days explor­ing the mag­i­cal gar­den – climb­ing the giant stone pines that stand sen­tinel to the front door, wan­der­ing the tun­neled gloom of myr­tle and bay lead­ing from the civil­ity of the tea­room to the roman­tic wilder­ness of the tree-shrouded lake whose sur­round­ing rocks are emer­ald with moss, dip­ping a cau­tious toe in the unique cir­cu­lar water tank whose per­gola walk once dripped wis­taria blos­som, stum­bling upon indig­nant scor­pi­ons among the valer­ian grow­ing in the ruins of some past pig man­sion, dis­cov­er­ing a hel­met and a tobacco tin in a sunny patch of grass – poignant sou­venirs of the British sol­diers who were bil­leted in the chapel dur­ing WW2.
Villa Laura is an enchant­ing place, with spec­tac­u­lar views in all directions.

Ital­ians tend their land with love

The adja­cent farm manager’s house would respond bril­liantly to a bit of cre­ative thought, and the pic­turesquely over­grown gar­den has the price­less attribute of fine mature trees. After fairly exten­sive ren­o­va­tion, the com­plex of build­ings would make a small but gor­geous hotel or a fab­u­lous fam­ily home. In the words of the direc­tor, Audrey Wells, ‘What are four walls any­way? They are what they con­tain. The house pro­tects the dreamer. Unthink­ably good things can hap­pen.’ Villa Laura awaits.

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Buddhists and Chinese food

About a Lit­tle Gingko Tree in the Rain

We’ve just had seven mixed Bud­dhists to stay with us for 10 days. They would rise at 6.30 am, drive across the estate to Casa Garuda for lec­tures and med­i­ta­tion, return after lunch for a siesta, then go back to Casa Garuda for more enlight­en­ment. They would finally return to us at about 10.30,  Pros­ecco merry, and we played mah jongg with Andrea’s adorable Chi­nese girl­friend Zhong Yu Shan, whose name means ‘Lit­tle Gingko Tree in the Rain’. Her mother changed her name two years ago when she was 17, fear­ing that she lacked suf­fi­cient wood and water for good feng shui with what­ever she was called before. Andrea — who could well be a model for a Car­avag­gio angel — teaches Ital­ian near an enor­mous glit­ter­ing New York-like city built on a river, called Cheng Du in Sichuan. Read the rest of this entry »

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Interview for Expat Magazine

 'Getting to Manana', pic taken by Dan

‘Get­ting to Man­ana’, pic taken by Dan

Spring lasted two days in Andalucia, but there were wildflowers everywhere for those two days

Spring lasted two days in Andalu­cia, but there were wild­flow­ers every­where for those two days

What were you doing in Eng­land before you moved to Spain?
I was liv­ing in the shadow of the Arse­nal Foot­ball ground, work­ing as Gar­den Edi­tor of Coun­try Liv­ing mag­a­zine, writ­ing a load of books about the finer points of cush­ions and can­dles, bring­ing up my two sons in an ama­teur­ish kind of way and watch­ing my life flash past. A cou­ple of years of Sudoku and Spi­der in Andalucía were the per­fect cor­rec­tive, slow­ing time down to a glacial pace. Read the rest of this entry »

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