Thursday, April 30, 2009

London Part 2- the reviews and tips


One of the iconic symbols of London is, of course, the double Decker bus, letting you know that you have arrived in the world famous heart beat of England. There are of course many other symbols but this one is one of the most identifiable.

Our stay in London's La Dolce Vita event was mostly defined by our time at the event itself and then of course our evening meals after the close of the event for the day.
We stayed in the Earls Court area of London in a wonderful one bedroom flat not 5 minutes walk from the West Kensington tube station. Castletown and Perham House self catering apartments, where we stayed is ideally situated and well appointed accommodation for exhibitors at Earls's Court or Olympia, as it only took us 10 minutes or so to arrive each morning at Olympia. You'll find the owners genuinely kind and helpful. It's a fantastic value for London as you can eat in or go out easily and feel like you;re living in London for a few days. Even if you aren't involved with the exhibition halls, West Kensington is a pleasant neighborhood to stay in and explore the heart of London from there. All you need to do is get yourself an Oyster card, travel after 9:30 am on the tube for the best value and you'll find yourself ideally situated to access most sights easily enough. Have a look at my and others reviews on Trip Advisor for more in depth information.

We stayed close to the flat a couple of nights and ate over in the Earls Court area as there was quite a few eateries in close proximity. Our first stop was our friends at Bistro Benito. Benito hails from Torino and his son Simone keeps the place humming and every body happy in this cozy, unpretentious, old fashioned bistro. It reminds me of some of my first experiences coming to Europe and finding yourself seated in close proximity and the shuffling around of tables and seats to accommodate the diners. Makes it easy enough to strike up a conversation with the folks next to you especially when what they are having is looking so good. The menu is eclectic covering all the bases, so there is something for everyone, distinctly Italian, French and English. The food is fresh, authentic and divine. We were eating lightly, as it is always a wise decision when you're tired and want to sleep well. I enjoyed the creamiest asparagus soup without any heavy cream and a tri colored salad with mozzarella so delicious I thought I was still in Italy. The carbonara that Enrico had was a wonderful balance between creaminess without heaviness and plenty of crisp pancetta coating al dente linguine. The house red wine was flavorful and best of all the price very reasonable for London. Unfortunately I didn't take any photos. The thing I notice every time we are there, is the neighborhood feel to it. Everyone seems to be a regular on a first name basis with the owners and staff and there always seems to be a birthday or anniversary or some celebratory event going on even if it's just the arrival of the dessert cart. That's cause for celebration in itself. If you find yourself in the neighborhood, make sure you don't miss another opportunity to feel like a local.
Another night we went for Indian at a small chain called Masala Zone. It was clean with friendly servers and a pleasant atmosphere. The food was fresh, colorful, interesting and tasty. We all ordered different variations on the combo platter and all were happy especially as the prices were quite reasonable.

Another night we enjoyed Moroccan food down in the Covent Garden area for another culinary journey. Again, flavorful and satisfying, especially as it was Saturday night and everywhere was full and it was getting late. We were delighted to find somewhere to take us all with out reservations.
Our other most enjoyable evening out was at our friends at San Lorenzo's in Knightsbridge. Fabrizio worked for them at their son's place in Wimbledon, for 4 years and they always treat us as family. The food is outstanding and judging by the full house, we weren't the only ones that thought so. They have had the same chef for 35 years and the food is authentic and impressively cooked to perfection. I had to laugh at the review in the link I put for the restaurant, as the reviewer mentioned that the only downside was that you couldn't pay by credit card, but perhaps that has changed by now. Oh no, they are traditional Italians and cash is the only type of payment they accept. Forty years in Knightsbridge hasn't changed them on that count. Do try their Bagna Cauda, with plenty of vegetables that insures you will inhale every luscious drop and be transported back to Val Chisone. Come and stay with us and we'll show you how it's done, so you can enjoy it not once, but again and again.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Return to the wilds of Pinerolo



One of my annual joys is to see the return of the stork to this chimney in Pinerolo. I noticed it a few years back and am always heartened every spring to see them return. This appears to my untrained eye to be a European White stork. According to what I read, they return every year to a former nest in March and April and raise their young for about 8 weeks. I took this picture a couple of weeks ago but was unable to get one of them feeding their young. In fact, it took we quite a while to get one where I could distinctly see that it was a stork as she seemed to be watching me and not sure hat I was doing, so she was less that cooperative. Eventually, she relented and let me get a decent shot of her. Fabrizio told me that this old abandoned factory was to have been torn down, but because of the nesting storks, they were unable to. I'm sure that didn't make someone happy, but I must say I am glad as it it such a lovely sight. The abandoned factory isn't so bad and still has a bit of charm, that is a nice old bit of town that hasn't completely been gentrified. I like it as is and apparently this family does as well.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

25th April Liberation Day


April 25, is when Italians celebrate their liberation during WWII. I have remarked on more than one occasion, that the collective memory of the war, or perhaps more aptly put, war in general, is never very far from ones awareness here in Italy. There are many memorials and even more commemorations of all the reasons that war is never glorious, just wrenching. So on this bank holiday every year, there are parades and speeches and picnics and outings etc etc., oftentimes a trip to the cemetery, and as is usually the case in Italy, a meal somewhere along the line on your outing. I find it is much like Memorial day in America.

On our visit to the market I noticed numerous Italian flags adorning balconies and lawns and all the vendors had these little flags to commemorate the day. Viva the 25th of April. I imagine the Commune passed them out as they checked to make sure everyone's vending license was paid up as well.

We noticed this decorated war veteran and asked if he minded me taking his picture.
He was doing a little shopping before heading over to the commemoration.
He cut a fine figure on this Liberation day, don't you think?

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Soup au Pistou / Minestra con Insaporitore

With April's fickle weather, one minute brilliantly bright and warm, the next cold and rainy, I couldn't resist this hearty soup that combines some of the last of the winter's standbys with a basil tomato paste mixture that lifts ones spirits in the belief that summer is just around the corner. I found a few Brussel sprouts in the market not long ago and already had some fresh basil in my basket when I remembered this flavorful soup. The origins of this recipe hails from our cousins over the border in France in the Provence area. There are as many variations on this predominately vegetable soup as there are cooks, with the highlight of the soup the last minute addition of a tomato based basil bread crumb topping that elevated this everyday soup to sublime. I rounded up the usual suspects, carrot, celery, onion and a few other familiar veggies, along with a small chunk of pancetta, rounded out with cannellini beans and barley and I was on my way to a yummy soup to accompany my crusty bread. It takes a little extra effort to assemble all the different elements of this soup, but worth the effort. A can of beans makes the soup come together a bit quicker without sacrificing the flavor, although I made a batch of beans and had enough leftover for another meal. In a pinch, I have used some of my home made pesto that I keep in the freezer for just such an occasion. It made an easy replacement for the fresh basil when fresh basil is still a far off dream in the winter. You just need to adjustment the mixture to make it more of a crumble topping and not too oily.
I think you'll find this a welcome addition to your repertoire of soups and not too late to make before it's all about asparagus and spring peas.

Soup Ingredients

100 g pancetta, bacon or prosciutto crudo, diced
1 onion, large, diced
2 leeks, small to medium, white part only, quartered and sliced
3 ribs of celery, diced
1/4 pound mushrooms, quartered
2 garlic cloves
8 Brussel sprouts, halved, or quartered, depending on their size

30 g tomato paste (1 oz)
200 g diced tomatoes (6 oz)
200 g crushed tomatoes (6 oz)
or 1/2 kg ( about 1 lb) fresh tomaotes
900 ml chicken stock /vegetable stock will work as well (1 gallon)
Heat the stock before adding at the end.

100 g barley, (1/2 c) dry measure, cooked separately
100 g cannellini beans, (1/2 c )dry measure, cooked separately
Salt and pepper to taste


Ingredients for the Pistou

2-4 garlic cloves, minced (2 tsp)
large handful fresh basil leaves, torn or chopped fine (5 T )
45 g tomato paste (3 T)
90 g Parmesan, grated (1/2 c)
5 g olive oil (1 1/2 tsp) more or less
a few bread crumbs to bring to a crumbly consistency
Fresh bread crumbs work best, but finely ground dry, will work as well

Method for the soup

Cover the barley and beans in separate pots as they will cook ad different times and cover with water and cook till soft. The barley should take around 20 minutes, the bean If using dry beans, they will need to have been soaked before cooking or soaked for an hour in hot water before draining and cooking in a fresh pot of water.
A pressure cooker works well for the beans also.

While the beans and barley are cooking prepare the pistou and set aside.

Method for the pistou

For the pistou you can toss the garlic, basil, and oil in a small food proceesor and pulse to chop and emulsify, but not too smooth.
Tip out into a bowl add the tomato paste and mix.
Add the parmesan and a few finely chopped bread crumbs just to give it a bit of body that will make it somewhat crumbly.
If you don't have a small food processor, mix the prepared ingredients, one at a time, mixing well after each addition.
Adjust any additions to reach the crumbly topping consistency and set aside.

Finishing the soup

Prepare your vegetables.
Sauté the pancetta till soft and starting to get color.
If your pancetta or bacon is extremely fatty, you might want to tip some of it out otherwise you do want some to give it some flavor.
Add all the vegetables except the Brussel sprouts, and cook a few minutes more.
Add the tomato products and add the hot stock.
Cook about 20 minutes till vegetables are about done.
Add the beans and barley.
Add the quartered Brussel sprout and cook till they are barely done.
Season with salt and pepper.

When serving the soup, either garnish each bowl with some of the pistou on top or pass the bowl pistou and let everyone garnish their soup to their own taste, usually a tablespoon or two.

This soup lends itself for many vegetable additions or substitutions, so don't be shy to make it your version of zuppa.

Serve with crusty bread, robust cheese and salad, for a satisfying lunch or dinner.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Pasquetta outing... Sacra San Michele and Rombo


Pasqua or Easter, as it is known for us native English speakers, and the day after, quaintly called Pasquetta has come and gone, but the fond memories linger on. Fabrizio's parents were the hosts the traditional family marathon of a lunch and they made sure no one went away hungry, hardly.
We had made it through course after course, finishing up with the walk around the neighborhood, aiding the digestion as a bonus . Fortunately for our digestive systems, the rain of the morning had finally given way, leaving a lovely afternoon for a stroll.
The day after Easter we followed the Italian tradition of going on an outing. Normally, its a day for picnics or a bar b ques with friends after having spent the day with the family on Sunday. We had family in town from the states, so we did our usual rounds of the sights to see in the neighborhood, along with a good portion of the rest of Piemonte.

It was a gorgeous sunny day. Heavy sigh, it's been a bit drippy ever since. Anyway, we made our way over to Avigliana with it's place of honor, as the gateway to the Susa valley, strategically skirting around the edge of two large natural lakes, one so deep with undercurrents that make it off limits for water sports, but the other a fine water sporting dream with the imposing Sacra San Michele hovering above on it's impressive perch on the mountain side. Photo opportunities abound. So we made our way just over and around the hill from here to make the pilgrimage to this medieval monastery that I have mentioned here and here before.
We stopped in town for a bite to eat finding naturally that everyone that wasn't picnicking or bar-b-cuing, were out for lunch. Finding all the lake side restaurants full to capacity we made our way through town and found a delightful trattoria, aptly called "Aldente".
Interestingly, it is a small chain of restaurants originally conceived by Italians in Prague and then has come to several other locations here in Torino and several other nearby outlying towns, all individually and independently run by local families. They have created a delightful dining experience and one that I look forward to experiencing again. It was busy holiday and we turned up in the thick of the lunch rush to a welcoming and charming old converted house in the center of town. It had lots of small details in the decor, ancient family photos, hanging clusters of grapes and wine bottles, tastefully done reminiscent of the Italian restaurants of my youth, which weren't quite so tastefully done in Southern Illinois. The brown recycled paper cone with it's treasure trove of various grissini waiting on the table, a tasty way to stave off the hunger pangs while waiting. I loved the cloth napkins tied up with a wisp of raffia twine and finished off with farfalle/ bow tie pasta. It set the right tone for the fabulous meal to come. The 18th century refurbished house struck a fine balance between casual familiarity and attention to details that offered a delightful repast. We all ordered the Rombo fish platter, as it made sense to keep it simple on a busy holiday and we were not disappointed. The skin searing, hot platters were delightfully decorated ceramic ovals that this Mediterranean turbot was served on added to the overall quaint charm of Aldente. The fish was moist, flavorful and well presented. The oven roasted rosemary potatoes, cherry tomatoes and carrot and fennel melange were cooked to perfection. A delightful discovery and a trattoria we will be recommending to our guests when they find themselves on an outing to Avigliana.
We made our way up to the monastery after our lunch along with the masses. It was truly amazing to see that many people turn up to take the tour. The photo below was taken a little ways from where we parked. You get the idea of how many cars there were. We had a bit of a walk to arrive for the 4 euro guided tour. Normally they don't always have guides but they tried to anticipate the crowds and deliver a better experience for everyone. Our guide asked where everyone was from and the replies, overall, were from various towns dotted around Piemonte. We later found out that they had sold 1,600 tickets that day. That a lot of us gawkers, making the guided tours a wise call, to monitor the flow of people. It also seemed to give credence to the idea that people are still going out during this crisis, to do things, but choosing inexpensive options, closer to home whilst enjoying a gorgeous day out. Not a bad choice indeed.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Happy Easter


The earliest spring flowers to appear on our mountain are the violets. They are here now and soon more varieties will be on the way. It's busy here in the neighborhood and shortly I'll get back to London part 2 and some recipes.
We wish you all a peaceful Easter and Passeover.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

The day after the Earthquake in Abruzzo

It has been a somber couple of days here in Italy as the death toll from the devastating earthquake in Abruzzo has risen to over 200 and the hopes of finding more survivors diminishes. The urgency of rescue, shifts to the unenviable recovery. The television has been covering the story non stop and several programs yesterday canceled and others adopted a respectful tone in light of the gravity of the situation. Those who could are staying with friends or family and many are sleeping in their cars or large tents that have been provided by the state. The seaside hotels have opened their rooms for the homeless. The suffering and shock of the change in their lives are etched in their faces and catches in their voice. The grim work carries on. Many from our region have gone down to help and more are organizing relief and aid here. There were a couple of early morning rescues today that brought some cheer to the people of this ancient city perched on a hilltop, many of whom have lost absolutely everything. Our hearts go out to all of them.
If you would like to help in anyway, Sara over at Ms Adventures in Italy, has complied a list of links to different agencies that can offer help to those affected. In spite of our prime ministers brave words that we can go it alone and take care of our own, we all know too well, that when all the camera crews go home there will still be devastated lives that will appreciate not being forgotten.
Donations to the International Response Fund can be made by phone at 1-800-REDCROSS or 1-800-257-7575 or online at www.redcross.org.
We are located about 7 hours north and slept through the whole thing. We thank all of you that have asked about us and expressed your concern. We appreciate your good wishes.
We appreciate what we have and will try not to forget.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Found: "La Dolce Vita" London Part 1


We went, we conquered, we came home!
The swirl of London and the activities of the "La Dolce Vita" expo has already started to fade, but left behind are some sweet remembrances of a few days spent sharing our valley's well known and loved "digestivi" of our friend, Enrico Bernard.

The gathering of over 200 food, wine and property sales people took place in Olympia Exhibition hall over four days. The first couple of days were rather quiet, although on the Press day I did meet a few interesting food and wine bloggers as well as some people looking to do a bit of importing and check out what all was available here. It certainly was an interesting mixture of offerings, from culinary demonstrations and wine tastings, to all sorts of olive oils and specialty foods not to be found in the main stream of London I don't think. I was surprised with one quick spin around a giant Tesco store close by to where we stayed in Earl's Court that there was quite a selection of Italian products along with quite a few other nationalities being represented under one roof. Nothing, of course, that could compare to to the quality and range of the cured meats and cheeses from Tuscany represented by I Toscani, that was on one side of us. On the other side we had tiny red aubergines and round white beans from the Parco di Pollino situated in the deep south between Calabria and Basilicata. The aubergines were most unusual. When I first looked at the pictures I thought they were tomatoes. There are pictures of them here. To be honest I didn't get many pictures, because I was either running around London dropping off samples of our Genepy and Barathier for potential customers or we were busy in the stand education the London crowds on what our mountain flower and herbal infusions were exactly. Unfortunately for many of the vendors, their English was limited or non existent, making it hard to explain their products properly to make that much needed sale.

There was a lot of sampling and a fair measure of baffled looks. Most people thought the digestivi were Grappa or some type of amaretto or something familiar to them. When they are indeed something quite different to what most people have tried unless they have spent some time in the Alps or other countries where infusions of liquor are quite the norm. I first came across similar herbal fire water when I worked in Slovenia and Austria, the warming drinks of the mountains. Hence we did a lot of talking and everyone else did a fair amount of drinking. There seemed to be a spilt in tastes of those who like Barathier, Enrico's great grandfather's recipe of 7 mountain herbs and flowers, and those that like the other offerings of Genepy Blanc, Genepy des Alpes, and Serpoul.

Along with our market stall we also had Torino Province well represented in the Provincia booth around the corner from us with several Paniere producers selling their wares.
Wine from Val Susa was represented byFranco and Carlotta of Vini Carlotta
Toma Cheese from Lanzo Valley represented by Anna Zedde (011 1950 4154)
All things Peppermint from Menta Pancalieri brought by Mirella Chiottone
Grissini by Panificio Collia went very nicely with the Toma cheese
and the typical wouldn't be complete with out a chocolate representative and that was taken care of by Stroppiana Chocolate of Torino

It was a good show, although from the viewpoint of the vendors it could have been better organized. Most disappointing for Enrico Bernard was that his web site was misspelled beyond recognition, in the printed brochure making for a very expensive mistake that the organizers only response was, sorry. Not very professional nor responsive to making their mistake right. I personally felt the hall also lacked music and the vivacity of an Italian festival. I think the most telling point is that most of the vendors were there for the first time this year. This is the 5 annual event and most of the people that we met and interacted with would probably not return next year. I think it is a great event that could be even better if the organizers were more open to suggestions from the vendors.
London is already becoming a bit of a fuzzy dream as we listen to the steady downpour of rain here. The good news is that the steady drip of rain is finishing off the last big piles of this winters white stuff. My bulbs are making a valiant effort to push up in the cold, so there is promise of spring green and flowers up here. The photo below was from the plane window as we flew over the alps and very little of theses majestic spires were showing. There was a blanket of clouds covering most except the biggest peaks poking up through the cotton blanket. The range in the background just to the left of the plane wing is the massif of Monte Bianco or the more recognizable name of Mont Blanc. There are clustered many other of the big names in European alps. It didn't take us too long to touch down after this as we are not so far away from this range of peaks.

Part 2 will be about where we stayed and places we ate.

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