Wood Fired Ovens and Smokey Food

Presolana, Lombardy, Italian Alps

Presolana, Lombardy, Italian Alps (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Two Greedy Italians are back on our t.v.s in the U.K. again, delighting us with their tasty recipes and edgy camaraderie and giving us glimpses of the beautiful Italian countryside. This week they were in the North visiting Lombardy and the Alps and Gennaro decided they would try for a couple of days to get by on what they could find, obtaining food by foraging and exchanging labour for food. Of course mushrooms featured largely as these are one of Antonio Carluccio’s favourite foods and they found several varieties of wild mushrooms growing in the fields and hillside. They went hunting with a group of local hunters who had a shed up in the hills  (obviously an extreme measure to get away from ‘her indoors’, ha ha.)

On their travels they visited a place where they air-dried beef to  preserve it. This reminded me of Elpiniki in Kaminaria, Cyprus, whom we visited on one of my stays with Androula. The method they showed us was very similar to the method Elpiniki used to preserve the pigs’ haunches to produce choiromeri. Always involving salt to draw out the water in the meat and smoking over a fire. The beef  in Lombardy, is hung in caves to cure where natural airborne fungi form a mould on the surface adding extra flavour.

The thing I most loved about these programmes is that Gennaro cooks most of the dishes using a wood fired oven. I can just taste the smokiness of the food. Wow. I would love access to a wood fired oven. Indeed, my prayers might soon be answered as a community garden I belong to in my village, might very well have one soon. One of the members is keen to build one and is researching it as we speak. Roll on I say, I might even be able to take my bread down there to cook…. oh! and maybe some kleftico. What a lovely idea.

The temperature of a traditional brick bread o...

The temperature of a traditional brick bread oven may be gauged by the whitening of the surface of the bricks. This one is about … well, you know. Quite hot. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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The Little Fish has Swum Back to the Pond

 World book fair

World book fair (Photo credit: Anks)

After the hustle and bustle of The London Book Fair last week I have come back to my comfort zone to reflect.

It was exactly as I thought it would be: very busy, very hot, very large and not particularly author friendly. But I found it valuable as the few conversations I had with some of the exhibitors, was constructive. I came away with a different perspective and the task of sharpening my focus on how I want to present “Androula’s Kitchen” to the world.

When I started collating and writing “Androula’s Kitchen – Cyprus on a Plate ” it was from my enthusiasm to find out bite size snippets of information about the cuisine and culture of the everyday. I revelled in gathering the information and the photos of course. My thoughts were ‘If this interests me then it must be of interest to others.” But what I never thought of doing was writing it from a publisher’s viewpoint of how to maximise its commerciality. I vaguely thought about where it would fit into the book shop categories. Is it a book on Arts & Crafts, Food or a journal? No, it’s all of these.

I’ve never exactly gone along with the main stream in life, I guess I’ve always been a bit of a rebel at heart and want to go my own way. Running true to form, I have come up with a book that doesn’t fit into a nice tidy slot.

When I came up with the “Cyprus on a Plate” part of the title  it wasn’t because I wanted to present it as a recipe book, although it does have some recipes in it. I wanted to give a ‘flavour’ of Cyprus not just its food but its culture. It doesn’t just have recipes it has information about the food. It give background and information on not just traditional weaving, basket making, pottery and The Arts  but on the contemporary. I’m proud of my little creation as you would expect but will anyone else want to buy it is the question? If so how am I going to tempt them to explore the content between the covers? I thought I could say “this is a meze of Cypriot culture from Arts & crafts to food. A feast for the eyes as well as the stomach” Does that sum it up do you think? Let me know.

Information

Information (Photo credit: heathbrandon)

Bourekia Anaris

Tsestos used as a tray with the bourekia

Tsestos used as a tray with the bourekia

Bourekia are found all over the Middle East. These little delicious pies are generally fried but for a healthier option can be cooked in the oven, once glazed with oil. Great finger food for parties.

This is a recipe taken from my book “Androula’s Kitchen – Cyprus on a Plate” . My Aunt Eugenia very generously took the time to show my cousin and I how to make some of the best – loved foods of Cyprus especially for the book.

These are delicious sweet little parcels of delight often eaten at parties.

Using the Basic Pasta dough quantities given should make approximately 30 parcels.

Basic Pasta Dough

BASIC PASTA DOUGH

250g plain white flour

250g wholemeal flour

Pinch of salt

Pinch of cinnamon (cinnamon is only used for sweet recipes)

1 tablespoon of sunflower oil

Water to mix into stiff dough (approximately 284ml)

Mix all the dry ingredients together then add the oil and mix in water to gradually bring together the ingredients to form a stiff dough. Knead the dough really well on a board for about 10 – 15 minutes or until it is smooth and elastic; the secret of good pasta dough is in the kneading. Leave to rest for at least 2 hours or keep in the fridge in a polythene bag for use the next day.

Filling

250g soft white unsalted fresh anari (a firm ricotta could be used if this isn’t available)

½ teaspoon cinnamon

1 teaspoon caster sugar

Few drops of rosewater

Few drops of vanilla essence or vanilla sugar

Zest of 1 orange

Mix all the ingredients for the filling together in a bowl.

bourekia anaris

bourekia anaris

Roll out the pasta thinly using a long thin rolling pin. My Aunt Eugenia uses a long plain round rolling pin, 4cm diameter and about 46cm long, to roll her pasta and, given her many years of experience, she is an expert in rolling the pasta very thinly. The secret, she tells us, is in keeping the board and pasta well floured so that it doesn’t stick. At the beginning roll out into a round and keep quarter turning the pasta to allow it to be rolled evenly. Once the pasta dough has become big enough Auntie showed us the technique of wrapping the dough around the pin and rolling backwards and forwards. This is a very good way of getting very thin pastry and is the local technique for making filo pastry. It also makes excellent use of a limited work surface as you are rolling several layers at the same time. But this takes practice and a long rolling pin. You also need a fairly good size pastry board or surface. When the pastry is about 2mm thin you can start to put your filling down.

Using a teaspoon place a row of small firm mounds of filling spaced about 2cm apart and about 4– 5cm. in from the edge, but this is dependent on the size of cup or glass that you’re using as a cutter. Then fold the edge of the pastry over the top of the mounds. Firm down the pasta dough in front and between the mounds, then use an espresso coffee cup or small glass to make small half-moon shapes, this also seals the two edges of the pasta parcels together.

  These are fried in hot sunflower oil until golden.

You can also fill these with a savoury mixture of fried onion, mince and mint instead of the anari.


Art & Food

Sicilian oranges

Image via Wikipedia

I have been following the 3 BBC programmes “Sicily Unpacked” with Italian chef Giorgio Locatelli and Andrew Graham-Dixon touring Sicily. While Andrew was  introducing Giorgio to some of the artistic treasures of Sicily, Giorgio was rustling up some Sicilian art of his own in the kitchen and I couldn’t have been happier to watch; these are my two favourite subjects after all, Food and Art.

As with the programme “Two Greedy Italians” last year, I was aware of strong echoes of subjects and themes that I  discuss in my book “Androula’s Kitchen”;  “Sicily Unpacked” even more so as art is discussed alongside the food. The programme certainly made you want to visit as the island seems full to brimming with some beautiful and ancient works of art. In the last episode particularly, as they visited two sculptures that I would love to see in the flesh: a very fluid almost whimsical figure of a possible satyr and a very ancient impressive sculpture of Demeter the goddess of fertility, with an elegantly spare face. The last has only recently returned to Sicily, after being missing for many years and has just been re-claimed back from America where it was discovered in a museum in California.

Demeter but not the re-claimed one

The pair also visited a photographer, Guiseppe Laoni who has been recording Sicilian life over five decades and whilst looking at some photos he took of a village wedding, Giorgio was reminiscing  back to his youth in his village when  the whole village was invited to a wedding. Of course this used to be the same custom in Cyprus and the photos could have been taken there. This is Mediterranean island culture. Of course Sicily was colonised by the Greeks around 750 BC and they remained for several centuries. Cyprus was ruled by the Venetians much later but retains traces of this both in the food and language.

The whole programme is a delight from visiting the wonderful tomato grower to the fabulously lush hillside vineyard full of butterflies. The scenery is beautiful the food looks mouthwatering and so is the art. Please check it out when you get the time.

Food Glorious Food – it’s all in “Androula’s Kitchen”

Following my last post of pictures of lovely food, my cousin asked me if I cooked any of the dishes and my reply was of course- I have been working my way through the recipes I collected for my book “Androula’s Kitchen” . I posted on July 27th the recipe for koupebia, – stuffed vine leaves, at a time when I was picking fresh vine leaves from my garden and using some fresh and freezing some for later use in the winter months, when fresh ones would not be available.

Good meat is essential in all the recipes to get the full flavour experience and I am very lucky to live near an organic farm that has exceptionally tasty lamb which I use minced for the koupebia and yesterday for moussaka.

In Cyprus all the meat has a wonderful flavour and I guess this must be in part due to the wild herbs and grasses on which the animals graze, as honey tastes differently depending from where the bees collect the pollen.

Even chicken eaten in Cyprus has a  beautifully full flavour. Is this maybe because the chickens are all free range?  I have no evidence of this at the moment, or maybe the chicken is a little more mature before killing and cooking it which will give the meat a fuller flavour.

The chickens we have in our local community garden, are two years old and as their egg laying value  is dwindling, discussions have taken place about them possibly getting the chop to make way for a fresh lot in the spring who will hopefully lay plenty of eggs for us. Once it has been decided who will do the deed, I only know it won’t be me, the meat will be put to good use in a tasty chicken dish which we will enjoy at our Christmas get-to-gether. So I will be interested to see what kind of flavour Tangmere chicken has. For the past month they have been pecking away in the strawberry bed, clearing away all the weeds. But will this mean they’ll taste of strawberry? What an extraordinary idea.

Ahh! food glorious food.

What I love about Cyprus…..

What I love about Cyprus are the smells: the earth has its own aroma and there are so many fragrant bushes and trees and flowers. The sun intensifies the essential oils and makes these more potent, then after it rains again the scent is heady in the air. Close to where I am there are many pine trees and these smell beautifully fresh and delicate.

Then there are the smells of cooking….cinnamon, souvlakia cooking, bread and all manner of familiar spices and herbs mixed with vegetables and meat wafts in the air.

I love the sheep and the goats and the flavourful cheese: halloumi , anari, that is made with their milk. I love the views from the heights on the Akamas looking down over the rough terrain down to the blue sea that disappears into the horizon, the individual landscape that is Cyprus. There is a wildness here that will never be tamed and this I love.

I get very disappointed when I see so much commercialism near the coast to entice the tourist usually with cheap tat, tavernas, hotels and villas thrown up overnight in the hope they will be filled by visitors, offering them what they think they want. There is so much more Cyprus has to offer it just needs a little effort to find it.

I love the old buildings often in a half state of collapse or in some cases beautifully restored and even some newly built houses would make me see the advantages of these.

I love driving round the bends in the roads never knowing what I will find around the corner, what new vista lies before me and  the radio playing my favourite Greek music with the breeze cooling my face.

I love the fresh fruit, nectarines,watermelon, grapes, figs whatever you want you can find it growing here fresh and delicious with some sheep yoghurt in the morning.

The best time for me is late September  or early May when the temperature is warm but not so stifelingly hot as to render you a melted heap.

Last but not least I love the donkeys, how I miss seeing you doing your daily work up the hills.

Finger licking good

I mentioned before that I belong to a community garden and we now have added hens to our patch. These are rescued from the  evil clutches …of the battery farm and seem very content in their new home  cluck cluck- a -chuck.

We have 8 hens to start with and a very organised rota of 24 people to take it in turns to look after them. Letting them out in the morning and feeding them and putting them away at night. They don’t seem to be laying too many eggs at the moment ‘though, maybe they think they deserve a holiday. But I have had one egg and it was delicious, so I look forward to gathering more. Of course this was a common thing in all rural communities to keep chickens both here and in Cyprus. Many of our members were born and lived in the countryside and have experience of being around hens. I was born in London… not a lot of hens where I lived, the only livestock in our garden was a cat and a tortoise.

But I am enjoying the experience so far and of course there is always one hen that has to be awkward when it’s time to go to bed and I found that hen on the first night, chasing it around the pen until it made a false move and hopped onto the coop in easy grabbing distance.

I remember when I spent some time living with my grandmother we were going to have chicken for dinner and my aunt grabbed the chicken to do the deed and crack snap that was that. I’m not sure I would be able to go that far but whose to say- if I was hungry I might. I do love roast chicken.

Chicken traditionally is eaten at the weekend in Cyprus, the most popular way is to boil it giving you a wonderful stock in which to  cook your pasta  to eat with your chicken meat and a little pile of yoghurt with some halloumi grated over it. Delicious.

Lovely Leeks

Leeks for sale

Image via Wikipedia

I recently joined a community garden in the village where I live which unlike its name suggests doesn’t grow flowers but is given over to growing all kinds of fruit and veg. I don’t consider myself a skilful gardener at all, I’m a sort of common sense gardener. My dad had an allotment for many years and he was always after some help usually to do weeding  and I was very reluctant to venture down there. But when I did I was always enthralled as on a small plot he seemed to grow everything. Typical Cypriot style.  He had all kinds of soft fruits and strawberries as well as sweetcorn, potatoes, cauliflower, cabbage and so on. In his greenhouse he grew tomatoes and peppers, cucumbers and aubergines. In true allotment style the shed was made of discarded  doors and windows and the same with the cold frame.

Our community garden on the other hand seems more sedate, but the shed is an old railway carriage so quite traditional. We have a very large poly-tunnel in which there is a jungle of tomatoes and cucumbers reaching for the sky at the moment as well as peppers both green and red and some dinky little aubergines. It’s a pleasant place to be when it’s windy outside.

Today I planted out my first lot of leeks. I love leeks and have not got the space in my garden to grow them so I was delighted to see someone had sown the leek seeds in March and now they are ready to plant on. Some were fairly large already and the roots had all tangled together. I managed to untangle them by gently pulling them apart; they reminded me of a young girl’s long hair after washing. I had prepared myself  by checking out Monty Don’s very helpful video on how to plant out leeks. So I raked over the soil to get rid of the stones and dib dib dibbed with my dibber . The rows were a bit wonky at first but I improved. Now all I hope is they will thrive otherwise that will be my head on the block…..

I have got some lovely courgettes growing in my front garden this year. You might think that’s an odd place to put them but it is the only place I have space and it gets the sun nearly all day so they love it. Courgettes are also very decorative  with their huge fan like leaves  and magnificent yellow cup flowers. They taste delicious as well.

The Big Cheese- Cyprus on a Plate

Whilst watching the Two Greedy Italians talking about cheese and cheese- making which came up in nearly every programme, I inevitably started to wonder why there are comparatively few types of cheese made in Cyprus. Of course there is the versatile Halloumi, the hard,salty cheese made from goat’s or ewe’s milk preserved in brine with Anari the soft cheese made from the whey.  There is also Kefalotiri  made from sheep or ewe’s milk which is a hard yellow cheese similar to Gruyere with a salty, nutty flavour. These three are the traditional well known cheeses. The Anari can be eaten fresh which is a beautifully mild creamy texture and taste  or left to dry hard and used like parmesan. It is very similar to ricotta and is used in all kinds of cooking, my favourite being Bourekia Anaris which are little pastry parcels filled with cinnamon and anari, lightly fried. There is also a table cheese called Kaskavalli which is a yellow cheese with holes in it which is like the Italian Caciocavallo and probably was introduced by the Italians to Cyprus during the period of Venetian rule. Feta is also made on Cyprus, another cheese which is preserved in brine and inevitably sprinkled on top of the village salad when eating out.

In Cyprus as in Greece, sheep and goats are kept for their milk to make cheese and some cow’s milk is used nowadays and mixed in. In Cyprus it’s not allowed to use cow’s milk in the making of Kefalotiri however. The terrain of the country is perfect for sheep and goats as it is hilly and there are plenty of fresh herbs and shrubs for them to eat giving the resulting cheese a delicious flavour. To rear cows, pasture is needed which is not available although beef and milk are produced, the cattle must be reared in sheds. The goats only produce milk for a few months of the year which is why brine is used to preserve the cheese so it can be used  in the months when there is no fresh milk available and thus giving the cheese quite a salty taste. Cheeses made from goat or ewe’s milk is my favourite kind of cheese and I delight in trying the different varieties made around the world.The method for making all cheese follows roughly the same techniques it’s the source of the milk, the rennet and the maturing process that gives cheese its individual textures and flavours.

The Cypriots are strong traditionalists and this is shown in their steadfastness to sticking with the tried and tested. I wonder if any of the new generation of makers coming up now will venture into new avenues and say make a soft goat’s cheese or experiment with making a different variety of hard cheese? I would be very interested to try it when they do.

The end of the Italian Greedy Cook’s quest

Ostuni in Puglia

All Soul's Day procession, Tucson AZ, 2008
All Soul’s Day procession, Tucson AZ, 2008

I was rather sad last night knowing I was watching the last of the series of four programmes, Two Greedy Italians which has delighted me these past weeks. Indeed, the programme itself  had an aura of sadness as they attended the Puglia celebrations for the day of the dead, All Souls Day, Gennaro spent time in the church remembering the souls of the departed. They visited a monastery that used to be renowned for growing and cooking fabulous food for the monks.They found the gardens abandoned, the produce sold was not produced in the monastery but came from nearby, the food that was once renowned, prepared in the wonderful kitchen, now modest. The reason soon became obvious as the numbers of visitors who come to view the relics increases exponentially the numbers of men willing to devote their lives to God has diminished, leaving only 5 monks to not only tend to their religious duties but oversee the visitors, acting as guides, not really what they signed up for I’m sure. Antonio and Gennaro also visited the shrine of Saint Padre Pio , Gennaro’s personal saint, here again commercialism and popularism has overrun its simple spiritual origins. Gennaro was sincere in his firm beliefs and I can understand that part of him which yearns for a simpler more contemplative life away from the materialistic temptations of today.  I could see Antonio’s sadness at this rampant commercialism that seems to have overtaken the spiritual. Wherever in this world of ours something attracts a following, whether it be saintly or sinful, not far behind there will be someone with an eye to making a fast buck out of it. The the tale of Jesus turning out the money lenders from the temple sprang to mind.

But later in the programme Antonio and Gennaro go foraging in the woods for mushrooms and I agreed wholeheartedly with Antonio’s sentiment that here in the heart of the countryside, where life and death are in a – circle and the towering trees form an arch above your head with the breeze rustling the leaves, is the true cathedral of god. Here one can feel the presence of something far more powerful than ourselves at work. Churches, cathedrals and all that is inside them are man – made, surely to feel a creator’s presence you should put yourself in the heart of their creations. All the paraphernalia that goes with religions is superfluous, just look at a  beautiful flower, watch the surf of the ocean, hug a tree here you will see and feel true majesty.

It is not difficult to see that life today is very complicated and there are pressures that lie all around us, more and more people need something to cling to that gives them a feeling of security , something to believe in, to know that someone is looking out for them. But too how sad that there are always unscrupulous people out to exploit that?

Through these four programmes it has become obvious how genuinely fond these two men are of each other, despite the inevitable minor irritations that surely are found in all relationships over a period of time. They share a passion for food and their  homeland and this to me is so reminiscent of Cypriots. As they travelled through Italy and visited the different regions with their speciality foods, the similarities to the rural way of life in Cyprus came back to me time and again. I bid a  fond farewell to two greedy Italians.

More Greedy Italians

Amalfi Coast Italy 6

Image via Wikipedia

I of course had to see what those cheeky Greedy Italians were up to this week after last week’s pursuit of the traditional Italian woman. This week they ventured to the Amalfi coast, with those breathtaking views of verdant hillside precipitously running down to meet the glittering azure blue sea. This is where Gennaro grew up and he showed he hadn’t forgotten the skills he used as a boy for diving for fish from the sea bed, from which Antonio conjured up a quick and tasty shellfish linguini.

What struck me with this episode is how closely it resembled my sentiments about my journey to Cyprus in search of their culinary heritage. The bounty of nature is the same as in Cyprus, Antonio and Gennaro revelling in the freshness of juicy peaches and apricots just picked from the tree and not even bothering to pick the grapes off the vine before gorging on their black lusciousness. Lemons hanging profusely from the tree hanging over their terrace where Antonio rustled up a mouth – watering  lemon tart, if only I could have passed my hand through the telly and taken a slice, it looked so good.

In the 1950’s this area as with Cyprus, was very poor and they made do with whatever nature provided and wasted nothing. Necessity is ever the mother of invention and that certainly goes as far as inventing delicious food out of simple ingredients. These families, as with Cypriot villagers, kept, chickens, pigeons, goats and pigs to fatten up and eat. Pasta was eaten at the beginning of the meal to fill hungry bellies when there was possibly very little meat to go round in the second course if any at all. They ventured even further south to Naples,this is the birthplace of the pizza the now famous fast food. These regions ate what was known as”poor man’s food”  and the irony is that today this food is popular the world over and indeed turned into a cuisine that is served in  5 star restaurants. But as Gennaro says, when the ingredients are this fresh and eaten in these surroundings you couldn’t wish for anything more.

Two Greedy Italian Cooks

I was watching a new cookery series on telly last night called “Two Greedy Italian Cooks” which I found both very sweet, very Italian, very funny and very sad all at the same time. These two famous Italian chefs Antonio Carluccio and Gennaro Contaldo go in search of that  legendary Italian female  who is a fabulous cook and homemaker. Antonio is doubtful she still exists with most women going out to work with little time to cook and indeed they came across plenty of young unmarried women who know nothing of cooking and were not particularly bothered; although Antonio was of the opinion that unless you can cook you will not find a husband  (hummmm?) What do you say to that? The men were bothered of course and in one cafe  where they were chatting to a group of young women and one solitary male who was bemoaning the fact that he missed home cooking as his partner worked very hard and had no time to cook so (sigh) he had to cook. One young woman had the audacity to say that wouldn’t it be lovely to find a young man who could cook for them? Now it didn’t seem to occur to  these two greedy cooks, that they were, indeed, capable of cooking a lovely meal for the hard working girls and surely instead of expecting the women to take sole responsibility for cooking a family meal that they could promote  both the men and the girls learn to cook “lika mamma used ta make” after all that is what they did. “Lungo la parità live” or in English, long live equality I say!!!

They were very relieved to see that a cookery school has been established which teaches women how to make pasta, The Awaiting Table, in the south of Italy. On visiting this… well who should they see but one of the hard working young women they had spoken to earlier who couldn’t cook for toffee and had obviously decided after Antonio’s pronouncement, she had better buck her ideas up and learn to cook that pasta or she will be left on the shelf along with her bag of flour.

However, I agreed  wholeheartedly with Carluccio’s sentiment that “cooking for someone is an act of love.” I love cooking for others, not all the time mark you but I certainly get a kick out of it.

My grandmother passed her knowledge down to my auntie who cooked along side her when she was alive and I was privileged that she gave my cousin Androula and I a master class in how to make pasta the Cypriot way when I visited last  May to gather information for my book “Androula’s Kitchen”. I am pleased to read on the Awaiting Table web site, that the traditional Italian way to make pasta is identical to that which aunt Eugenia showed us, using just flour and water and a very long rolling pin.