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A couple of weeks ago it felt as though spring had finally arrived after what seems to have been the longest, most bitter winter I’ve spent in Italy. 

almond-blossom2

cherry1

All the signs were there: the almond tree came out in blossom; there were promising buds on the cherry; new shoots were sprouting on the elms; even the persimmon, which I thought had given up the ghost, sprang back to life.  Yet something was missing… 

Then, winter returned with a vengeance.  Back out came the jumpers, coats and extra layers.  Would it ever end?

What was missing was the return of the House Martins.  Just when I was beginning to think they’d abandoned us, I saw the first little chap. 

cherry11

That was two days ago.  How do they know?  Why didn’t they come back when they usually do?   Did someone tip them off?  Do they send an advance scout to check out the situation?  Are they sitting there in North Africa, or the Costa Del Sol tuned in to the weather forecast?  What is it?

cachiWhatever this instinct is – and it’s darn clever – they must be the guys who pass this information on to the Hoopoes (Upupa epops), because yesterday they came back too.  I saw the first one in the afternoon and this morning, heard his distinctive call joining those of the Martins and the many, many who stay with us all year round, come rain or shine.

bee

pear1The Martins stay all summer, but the Hoopoes only take a short holiday here (two weeks at most) before moving further north.  It’s odd, because I never see them on their return journey.  Maybe they prefer to stay in Provence rather than Le Marche for their autumn holidays.

I don’t have a photo of the Upupa, because he keeps taking me off-guard and is rather shy and very elusive.  If I’m lucky, I’ll post it here.  In the meantime, here is a good link.

Next year, I’m going to ignore the calendar and take my cue from the House Martins and the Hoopoes.  They know better than anyone when winter is over and spring begins.

basic-instinct

 

This post is for my lovely American friend D.  We met 30 years ago when we both lived in one of the most beautiful cities in Europe – Paris.  You asked about spring in Le Marche – this is my answer.  See you in June!!!

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There is a steep slope at the front of our garden and, to be honest, it isn’t very pretty.  You need to be a mountain goat to mow it and it always looks  unkempt.  I’ve tried planting ground cover, but nothing seems to do very well there.  This has everything to do with the fact that the soil is very poor, too well drained and nearly always in the shade of some ancient cypress trees under which nearly everything struggles. 

I had the tiniest bit of luck with periwinkle.  I saw that some was already growing among the weeds, so added a few more plants.  That was over three years ago.  I was expecting a carpet of blue by now!  

 

What does do well under the olive and cypress trees is the wild asparagus.  These were already well established when we moved here.  

They are rather ugly plants that don’t do anything to enhance this part of the garden.  If they weren’t so special, I’d have pulled them up ages ago. 

Here, they come into season towards the end of March/beginning of April.  So now is the time to start enjoying  them. 

If you are looking for a recipe: I just put them in boiling water for hardly a minute and serve drizzled with olive oil and a tiny squeeze of fresh lemon juice, but more often than not, I’ll just snap them from the plant and eat them raw.  They are that sweet.

 

Two of my favourite blogs have posted about wild asparagus recently:

 

 Ingrid from Vita Lenta nel bel Paese

and

Joe from Italyville 

 

If you click on the links, you’ll find more information, a couple of recipes and a neat video from Joe too!

Guests 2

panda2“Have you got a panda?” 

“Er…, no.”  I replied.

(Between you and me, I thought he was referring to  B. who has black patches over both eyes.) 

 

Then I woke up…

 

This was an excellent question from a 4 year old guest, because there is a bamboo pit at the bottom of our garden. 

Not just your ornamental type of bamboo.  It grows over 30 metres and new shoots set rapidly.  

I kept an eye on one shoot which grew from 5 centimetres to 3 metres in one summer!

  

“There is a badger there, though.”

 

“What’s that?” 

 

“Well, it’s black and white – just like a panda, but it’s nocturnal so you probably won’t see it.” 

 

“What does nocturnal mean?” 

 

This boy is going to go far. 

 

Intelligent questions from an enquiring mind.

Tradition has it that Chicken Cacciatore was made to cheer up the unlucky hunter when he came home empty-handed.  (Cacciatore is the Italian for hunter.)  Well, not exactly empty-handed because sometimes he’d spot some wild mushrooms under a tree whilst having a rest and cussing his hound.

I served this on wooden trenchers over polenta, but it goes just as well with rice, potatoes, or just a chunk of crusty bread.

Chicken Cacciatore:

  • 1 onion, peeled and roughly chopped
  • 2 carrots, peeled and roughly chopped
  • 2 celery stalks, washed and roughly chopped
  • 1 handful of dried porcini
  • 1 whole chicken
  • 1/2  glass Marsala
  • 500 ml chicken stock
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 5 tbsp passata
  • salt & pepper
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  1. Put the dried porcini in a bowl and cover amply with boiling water.  Leave to steep for at least half an hour.  Strain, but reserve the juice.
  2. Cut the chicken into 6-8 portions.
  3. Put the olive oil in a large heavy-based pan, add the chopped onion, celery and carrots and sauté for 3-4 minutes.
  4. Add the strained porcini and cook for another 2 mins.
  5. Add the chicken pieces.
  6. When the chicken begins to brown add half a glass of Marsala (or a full glass of dry white wine).
  7. Simmer for a couple of minutes to reduce the alcohol.
  8. Add the stock and the juice from the dried porcini.
  9. Add the tomatoes and a bay leaf a good twist of black pepper and a pich of coarse sea salt.
  10. Turn down the heat and simmer gently for about an hour, or until chicken is cooked.

We don’t have a hunter in the family and are still novices at foraging for wild mushrooms.  This recipe uses dried porcini.  The mushrooms (either dried or fresh) are optional, but they do give the dish an earthier taste and a bit of depth.

The black jewels in the photo are cured olives. Again optional.  If using, add 15 mins before the end of cooking.

I’d like to take this dish to the

Festa Italiana

held by Maryann over at

Finding La Dolce Vita

and Marie from

Proud Italian Cook.

I’ll also be taking along a bottle of the local Rosso Piceno.

I do all the day to day cooking, but when I fancy a night off  Dan will step in.  He’s actually a brilliant cook who has worked as a chef in restaurants both in Italy and in the UK. 

One of the first things Daniele cooked for me was Bollito Misto.  As he started to explain it, I was thinking:  Hang on, this is Boiled Beef and Carrots!

I’d never boiled meat before and I can’t say I was relishing it that much, but it was delicious and has become a winter staple.

Bollito Misto:

  • 1 large potato (peeled and cut in half)
  • 1 onion (peeled, but left whole)
  • 2 carrots (peeled and snapped in half)
  • 2 sticks of celery including the leaves (washed and snapped in half)
  • 2 cloves of garlic (peeled)
  • Half a chicken
  • Large piece of boiling beef  (silverside or brisket)
  • 2 bones from the butcher (I had a knuckle and a small piece of marrow bone)
  • 1 bay leaf
  • a good twist of freshly ground pepper
  • a little coarse sea salt

 

 

Put all the ingredients in a very large heavy-based pan.  Fill with cold water, bring to the boil then simmer very, very gently for approximately 3 hours.

When ready, slice the vegetables and serve on a large platter with the meat.  Best accompanied with salsa verde and/or Mostarda.

Purists would say that if you want a good stock place the meat in cold water and if you want good meat wait until the water is boiling before adding it, because this seals the meat.  I put the meat and vegetables into cold water and bring it rapidly to boiling point on the gas then transfer the pot to the wood-burning stove where it bubbles away gently for a few hours until ready to eat.   This way I get good meat and good stock.

Please Note: This is a “pauper’s” version.  A true Bollito Misto uses about seven different types of meat which often include a pig’s trotter and sausages, some of which are boiled in separate pots.

This is an economical dish because you can use the cheaper cuts of meat and everything is cooked in one pot.  To make it even more economical, I usually make this in a larger quantity than we can eat at one sitting.  Any leftover meat can be eaten cold the next day with salad.  Any more is turned into a curry and any vegetables are whizzed up for soup.

The best part, however, is that you are left with a delicious stock, broth, or “brodo” with which I always make Tortellini in Brodo.

Recipes for Tortellini in Brodo and Salsa Verde to follow soon.

Tavignano

Only 2 miles from Casalba is another vineyard we visit: Tavignano.  Apart from exporting, they sell wine to personal visitors either bottled or “en vrac”/”sfuso”. 

Tavignano is run by a noble couple and their excellent sommelier P. 

It is always an event when we visit.  I love the setting and the decor.

 Tavignano has won many national and international prizes for its wine.

The pictures speak for themselves… 

…but I would add these words: good taste! 

For the setting, the decor and, above all, the wine.

Guests

 

We were sent the most beautiful brochure from a lovely Finnish couple who stayed with us last year. 

I was totally bowled over.  Not just for the thought, but also because it was so very professional and full of  stunning photographs.  

I asked if I could put some of the photos here. 

So pleased they agreed.

Here is “my” bottle green Ape again:

If you look closely, you’ll see A. in the sunflower field: 

I think P.’s photos are excellent.  He took them all on various “days out” and made this book as a memory of the holiday he and A. had here.   What a great idea!

I’d like to share this photo of P.’s with Joe from Italyville who asked for pictures which “scream Italy”.  This one certainly fits the bill.  Non è vero?