Monthly Archives: October 2014

Cucina della Terra

 

Sunflowers in the Cucina della Terra Kitchen

Sunflowers in the Cucina della Terra Kitchen

Here I am on my yearly trip to Cucina della Terra in Umbria, Italy. Cucina della Terra, as I’ve mentioned in past posts, is the small, lovely culinary school that my friends Gerri and Jack own in Castiglione del Lago, a beautiful town situated above Lago Trasimeno, one of the largest lakes in Italy. Umbria is the region directly in the middle of the country, northeast of Rome and southeast of Tuscany. It is known as “the green heart of Italy”, and it certainly is – green, I mean. The rolling hills, farms, olive groves, and vineyards make it one of the most picturesque places in the country. It bears a resemblance to Tuscany, but only up to a point- there is no “chi-chi” or snob component here, few tourists, and more of a “real life” feel.

Overlooking Lake Trasimeno

Overlooking Lake Trasimeno

I love coming here for many reasons. I reconnect with Italy – the food, the land, the scenery, and the lifestyle. (Okay, the wine too…) I get to cook and bake using the pure earthy ingredients that are the basis of real Italian food, which is very simple and wholly depends on the terra from which it came.

Raw Ingredients for our Class this Evening

Raw Ingredients for our Class this Evening

There are 35 olive trees on the property, and the bright green olive oil that comes from them is strong and peppery- we use it for everything. The fruit and vegetables are incomparable- autumn brings cipollini onions on the stalk, all manner of squash and pumpkin, fennel, porcini and a load of other fragrant mushrooms, black kale, lentils and beans grown on the shores of the lake; plums, pears, apples, and figs that are bursting with juicy flavor.

Red and Black Plums, Pears, Apples, and Mandarins waiting to be used in a Fresh Fruit Crostata

Red and Black Plums, Pears, Apples, and Mandarins waiting to be used in a Fresh Fruit Crostata

Umbria, with no coastline, is famous for its more earthbound delights like truffles and game. Venison ravioli, braised duck, grilled marinated quail, and wild boar sausage are all dishes to be savored here – and we do, of course. Pici al ragu di cinghiale is a dish, prevalent in Tuscany and Umbria that really exemplifies the cuisine: hand made pasta (like a very fat spaghetti) with a robust and aromatic sauce of braised wild boar and tomatoes. As soon as I arrive in Umbria, my mouth starts watering, looking forward to a porchetta panini- a sandwich of whole roast pig stuffed with wild fennel, garlic, and herbs. Speaking of fennel, I do love greens of any kind (I don’t know any Italian-American that doesn’t). Umbria grows its share of greens and then some. The open market in Castiglione had this beautiful escarole and leafy broccoli (almost worthy to be the subject of a watercolor).

Leafy Broccoli and Escarole from our Favorite Produce Purveyors at the Open Market in Castiglione

Leafy Broccoli and Escarole from our Favorite Produce Purveyors at the Open Market in Castiglione

Baking is wonderful too as we use the freshest, fluffiest eggs whose bright orange yolks infuse everything with a saffron hue. Cream, milk, mascarpone, sheep’s milk ricotta, aged parmigiano, all types of pecorino — the dairy has a purity that is very palpable. I make marmellata (fruit preserves) with anything and everything – green figs from the fig tree in the back of the Cucina are my favorite.

Green Figs, Sugar and Citrus Fruits ready to be Simmered

Green Figs, Sugar and Citrus Fruits ready to be Simmered

We make gelato and sorbetto as well as all kinds of biscotti, making the most out of the fresh hazelnuts that come from Piemonte, the amazing dried and glaceed fruits that are available at open markets all over the Mediterranean, and of course, the chocolate (more about that in the next post).

The food and wine lovers that come to Cucina della Terra get to hunt for truffles, taste fantastic wines at beautiful vineyards, pick olives and watch them being milled into that fragrant green elixir know as extra virgin olive oil, and visit some of the famed scenic hill towns of the area like Orvieto, Montepulciano, Pienza, Assisi, and Bevagna.  The landscape, cuisine, people, and culture of Italy are so diverse. Umbria is certainly captivating, though each region is worth discovering on its own!

 

Grape Harvest

I have to admit that the first thing that comes to mind when I hear the words “Grape Harvest” isn’t the image of a bucolic Tuscan countryside of vine-covered hills; it isn’t bottles of Cabernet or Sangiovese; it isn’t even the happy thought of vineyard-hopping and wine tasting in Napa Valley, Long Island or the Finger Lakes. It’s the image of Lucy stomping grapes in a huge vat, flinging purple grape sludge at a very angry Italian woman. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, you need to get on YouTube right away and search for “I Love Lucy, Grape Stomping Episode.” You won’t be sorry, trust me.

That being said, I have an idealized vision of what life on a vineyard must be like. One of the most emotional travel experiences of my life was visiting the large farm that my great grandparents owned in Basilicata, in southern Italy. “Spogliamonaca” was pretty much in ruins when my cousins and I visited a few years ago, the beautiful stone farm buildings and houses just shells of what they had been. But the vineyards were still planted and flourishing, and gave us an impression of what it must have been like to have lived there at the turn of the last century when the farm was thriving.

In any case, I love grapes, and I love wine. I use both in my cooking and baking extensively. When autumn rolls around, and grapes become available, I buy them up and turn them into lots of different treats. One item I’m totally crazy about is “Schiacciata a l’Uva”, which is something I first tasted years ago in Tuscany and have been making ever since. It’s a kind of sweet focaccia made with wine grapes, and it’s totally fabulous. I make mine with an olive oil brioche dough, layer it with seedless green Thompson grapes, sprinkle it with vanilla sugar, fresh thyme and black pepper, and bake it on the stone floor of our bread oven. It’s crispy on the outside, soft on the inside and full of grapey flavor- perfect for a picnic or wine tasting, or wine –making for that matter.

grape-1

Emma Munroe, barista and salesperson extraordinaire at L’Arte invited Amanda and I to a day of her family’s extended winemaking festa. Emma’s family has been making wine yearly since the prohibition! It was a fun time with a lively and very funny family in the midst of their traditional foray into the art of winemaking–punctuated, by the way, with very frequent toasts and lots of raised glasses of the the wine that they had made two years ago.

grape-2

Every autumn, the Iannaccones buy grapes in crates from Corrado’s Market in Clifton, N.J. They crush them, let them ferment for 10 days, then squeeze out the juice, which is already wine, by the way (like Beaujolais Nouveau).

grape-3

They then let this young wine sit in large glass jars called carboys, fermenting until the spring, when it will be bottled.

grape-4

We drank wine from two years ago- it was strong, and flavorful, almost like a cross between grappa and wine. But then again, all of the homemade wine I’ve tasted in Italy is like that.

After the very hard physical work of squeezing the grapes and bottling the wine, Emma’s large extended family sits down en masse to a dinner of lasagne and sausage and peppers. It really is a wonderful tradition, rare in a world where many families (like mine) have drifted apart and moved to different corners of the country.

But back to baking and cooking with grapes and wine. Using wine as a liquid in baking adds an incredible amount of flavor, and grapes just bake really well in cakes and pies, although it’s not that common to see. We do lots of crostate at L’Arte and one of my favorites is our Harvest Crostata, which consists of a tender and crumbly pasta frolla crust filled with a sweet and juicy combination of apples, pears, plums, and grapes. I also love to use Concord grapes- their flavor is so unique, although for some people it’s hard to appreciate them because of the somewhat troublesome texture of the skin and seeds. Which is one reason why I decided to use them in a granita, that quintessientally Italian version of flavored ice. Granita is a great item to make at home because it’s a frozen dessert that doesn’t involve an ice cream or gelato machine. And it’s a refreshing way to end a big meal, maybe along with a plate of biscotti.

Concord Grape Granita

Concord Grape Granita

1 qt. Concord grapes, on stem
¾ cup red wine or Port
3 cups water
½ cup sugar

  • In a large pot, combine all ingredients and bring to a rapid boil.
  • Turn flame down to medium and allow the mixture to boil for about 20 minutes. The grapes will have turned mushy and lost a lot of their color.
  • Remove the pot from the heat and strain the liquid into a large bowl or container.
  • Pour the liquid into a large metal baking pan or other flat container.
  • Freeze the mixture, stirring every so often.
  • When the granita is completely frozen, scrape it with a metal spoon or ice cream scoop. Put back into the freezer until ready to serve.
  •  Serve in small glasses, garnished with fresh grapes.