Sunday, 1 April 2012

Pastiera Napoletana

If you ask me what my favourite cake in the world is, I have one answer: “La Pastiera”.

It is an ancient cake that goes back to mythical times. It had a religious and symbolic meaning which was incorporated into Christianity. In fact the so called modern version was created by the nuns of San Gregorio Armeno, in the old town of Naples, in 1600. Its ingredients symbolise the Resurrection and the fragrance of the coming spring.

When I was in my last year at school our class decided to spend a day in Ischia during the Easter holidays. One of our schoolmates was from this island (he commuted to our school in Naples by  ferry every day). We had a great day out,  the weather was sunny and warm. We had a swim in the sea and when we found a nice place to play we even manage to have a football match. We were really full of energy. While on the beach one of our mates had an incident and his underpants were torn so he couldn’t wear them. He then wore just his trousers to  play football which was very uncomfortable kit and from then on was named the man without underpants. For lunch we had big sandwiches and beer. At the end of the day we were really happy and after saying bye bye to our friend we headed for the port to catch the last ferry back to Naples. The sky suddenly became overcast and strong gusts of wind started blowing. When we got to the ferry we were told that the sea was getting really rough and the ferry wouldn’t be able to leave. We were stranded, an entire class. With a strong sense of embarrassment we went back to our friend to ask where we could spend the night and we would catch the first boat in the morning. He had a brief word with his mother who happily gave us a roof. They had a restaurant and a few rooms so she put up all 15 of us. She fed us at night and gave us the best breakfast: coffee and pastiera. She had baked a few days before dozens of pastieras for the restaurant so lots of cakes appeared on our table.

My mother had her family recipe that she would do by heart, automatically. I asked one day  if she would  type it for me. She did it. After many years I thought I had lost it and I was really sad as she died a few years ago. Then quite recently it materialised in a cookery book. I think I had just forgotten it there many years before. So now I’ve slightly updated the recipe (for instance she used pork fat instead of butter!).

For the pasta frolla:

300 gr. (3 ¼  cups) flour + 100 gr. ( ¾  cup) for sprinkling when needed
100 gr. (3 ½  ounces) Cold Unsalted Butter, diced
100 gr. ( ½ Cup) Granulated Sugar
1 Eggs
2 Egg yolks
A pinch of salt

For the filling:

400 gr. (14 ounces) Ricotta cheese
450 gr. (1 pound) Soaked wheat for Pastiera (Available in tins or jars in some UK and US Supermarkets and Italian Delicatessen)
450 gr. (2 ¼ cups) Granulated Sugar
5 Eggs
70 gr. (2 ½ ounces) Candied peel or Candied Citron (Citrus Medica) if available
1 small Lemon unwaxed, untreated
Orange flower water or Orange Water (use the dose for about 1 kg - 2 pounds)
350 ml (1 ½ Cups) Milk
A pinch of salt

Icing sugar to sprinkle on top


To make the  Pasta frolla:

In a mixer put the flour, sugar and the cold diced butter and a pinch of salt
Blend for a short time until the mixture appears crumbly, then add an egg and two egg yolks, until you get a ball.
Put the ball in food wrap and leave it in the fridge to rest while you’re making the filling. I often prefer to make the pastry the old fashion way by hand. 

To make the filling.

Put the wheat and the milk in a saucepan.
Place on a low flame and stir it occasionally with a wooden spoon to avoid it sticking to the bottom of the pan, for 15- 20 mins to allow the wheat to absorb some of the milk.
Leave it to cool.

In a bowl place the ricotta and stir in the sugar until it is smooth.
Add 5 egg yolks and set aside the egg whites.
Grate the zest of a small lemon and add it.
Then add the orange flower water, candied peel and the vanilla essence.

Now the difficult bit as you need to line the cake tin with pasta frolla.
Take the dough out of the fridge.
Sprinkle the pastry board and the rolling pin with some flour to avoid sticking. Extend the dough to line the cake tin and keep the excess to make 10 to 15 decorative criss cross strips about the diameter of your cake tin. The dough is not really elastic (because there is only one egg white) and tends to break. It doesn’t really matter as you can join bits together.

In an appropriate bowl beat the egg whites until firm.
Add the ricotta mixture to the cooked wheat and then the egg whites. Stir until smooth.
This mix is still quite liquid.

Now with a ladle fill the lined cake tin with the mix until just below the edge.

Lay the strips on the top.  Some people like to brush the strips with egg white to make them shiny. I can’t see the point as the pastiera is sprinkled with icing sugar before serving.

Put in a preheated oven 190°C degrees (Mark 5 or 375°F degrees) and cook for about 1hr. The strips should be golden and the open squares brown and firm (but not burned!)

Now let it cool down and rest.

It’s very important that the pastiera rests for a couple of days at least. Traditionally it is baked on Thursday or Good Friday and eaten obviously on Easter Sunday.
Just before serving dust it with icing sugar.

There are special pastiera cake tins. In Naples the traditional one is made of aluminium and the cake is not removed from the tin so when you buy one from the pasticceria you should get a tin (that’s how I got mine).
You can also use a spring cake tin. Make sure to open it when the cake is cold. 

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

A Short Trip To Naples

A few hours in a train is a wonderful excuse for burying one’s head in a book and that is how I nearly missed my first glimpse of home Vesuvius.
As I disembarked from the train I was accosted by an illegal taxi driver. Irritated I marched to the underground station and in half an hour I was in my brother’s flat in Vomero, on one of the hills of Naples.

I had come to Naples to catch up with my nonagenarians: my father who’s turned 92 a couple of weeks ago and my aunt, his sister, who is going to be 96 in a couple of months. Therefore after dumping my bags I hurried to my father’s flat in downtown Naples. He lives in a 1700 building in a flat that my parents bought from a Scottish family who had settled in Naples centuries ago. I remember that on their letterbox they spelled their surname in any possible way: Stewart, Stuardo, Stuarda, Stuarto. My father despite his years is in very good shape and is still a good walker and with the aid of a stick he does a few kilometres every day using public transport only if necessary. When I was a child he would always take me on his treks which meant exploring hidden corners and endless forgotten archaeological and art treasures.

The day after I had to go to a public office to sort out an ancient problem. I ended up bouncing between offices in two different parts of the city and I failed. But looking from the bright side I met a clerk from Turin with a spark in his eyes and a rather interesting and philosophical attitude to life, who, at least offered to help. I had an appointment with my father for lunch and I was now terribly late but we hadn’t booked so he wasn’t worried. Naples is the birthplace of the pizza. My father suggested we should have a pizza at the Trianon, one of the historical temples. We obviously had to walk to the place, over an hour at his pace, as he stops every time he sees something remarkable or amusing, which means every few seconds as the streets of Naples are just one big theatre and museum at the same time. He points at things by swinging his stick and missing people by half an inch every time. We walked from the National Archaeological Museum near where he lives, down to Piazza Dante cutting through the street called Cisterna dell’Olio (The Oil tank); we got to Piazza del Gesù then followed Spaccanapoli, ‘Naples splitter’, a very long narrow street, which splits the old town. It is the old Central Decumanus of the Greek-Roman city.  One stretch of this long road is called San Biagio dei Librai, an area where old bookshops still survive, a kind of ancient Charing Cross Road.

Then after crossing Via Duomo we ventured into Forcella a characteristic district home to two of the most famous pizzerias, Trianon, my Father’s favourite and almost opposite,  “da Michele”, where Julia Roberts was filmed for “Eat, Pray and Love”. These two places make some of the best pizzas in the world.
We sat upstairs. We were lucky to find a table, it was two and the place was still packed. They were all locals except a brave Japanese woman travelling on her own. The waitress appeared immediately and because my father spelt out his order immediately – he always has a pizza marinara - I didn’t have time to look at the list so I went traditional and ordered a ripieno, also called calzone.
The Marinara is a very simple pizza: olive oil, tomatoes, garlic, origano, fresh basil and a pinch of salt topping a thin disc of naturally leaven dough. The Ripieno is a sort of large pizza dough sandwich shaped like a giant raviolo stuffed with fresh ricotta, prosciutto or salami, mozzarella and topped with a film of tomato sauce and fresh basil.

Within ten minutes we had two piping hot pizzas in front of us. To wash it down we shared a bottle of Nastro Azzurro beer. The pizzas were spectacular: hot, moist, beautiful. To make a perfect pizza is a difficult job, a pizzaiuolo needs great skills, good quality natural dough, high oven temperature (490C / 915 F), the right wood, a lot a lot of practise but also love, passion and pride. They have them all at the Trianon. One of the secrets of a Neapolitan pizza is the wood fired oven insulated  by  volcanic sand from Vesuvius.

We walked back this time along via Duomo. The address no. 46 had on its wall a marble plaque with a quote by its most famous resident, Libero Bovio, a poet and composer of Neapolitan songs whose works became well known across the Atlantic. The quote is written in Neapolitan and reads: ‘..and I am Neapolitan and If I don’t sing I’ll die’. 

We stopped for a cup of coffee in a bar,  then we returned along Via dei Tribunali, the ancient Main Decumanus. It was now the time to see my aunt. I accompanied my father back home then set off to Mergellina where she still lives in the flat where she and my father were born. It was very mild so I walked. I found her well. She is always on the ball and very jolly. Her memory is much better then mine. I asked her, as I always do, a lot of things about our family history as she is the oldest surviving member and loves to talk about the past. I spent a few hours with her. She even sung me a couple of songs, just to prove that Libero Bovio was right. I asked her about an extraordinary neighbour she had known very well. He was called Giovanni Gaeta but was better known as E.A. Mario. He was a natural songwriter and had produced some of the most sublime Neapolitan songs. But I am mentioning him because of his most noteworthy achievement, a song called “La Leggenda del Piave” (The legend of the river Piave), which became the leitmotif of the Italian people in WW I. Later after the collapse of the Fascist regime it briefly became the National Anthem.
Then I left and went to see two of my dearest friends whom I’ve known for over 30 years, Maria and Gennaro. She’s a university literature teacher and when we meet we can’t stop discussing books, philosophy and mysticism. But she is a fantastic cook with the ability to produce a gourmet meal within minutes. It is winter so we sat in the beautiful veranda overlooking Piazza San Gaetano, a beautiful square which was the Roman Forum two thousand years ago and the Greek Agora previously. That means that the place has seen life (mostly good life) continuously for almost 3000 years. Naples is one oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world.

Maria produced “vermicielle cu’ 'e purpetielle”, spaghetti with small octopuses and tomatoes, a spectacular dish that I have not had for years, artichokes in white wine and a sublime improvised salad with lattuce, apples, fennel, capers, pine kernels and oranges. Pudding was chiacchiere, carnival fried strips of dough, to dip in sanguinaccio, a chocolate sauce. We washed down the meal with Prosecco to start and then Aglianico, a full bodied red from the region. This was my first full day, not bad from the food point of view.

The next morning I had a promise to keep. Many years ago I happen to read a rather interesting article in the Financial Times about Naples. I remember that in the article they mentioned Bar Mexico in Piazza Dante, a place where one can taste the best coffee in Naples. As I have known the bar for ages, months ago I told the owner about my discovery and promised that I would do my best to trace the article. Eventually I succeeded, so this time I presented my findings to them. They were very pleased because being praised in such a paper is a great honour. The coffee people wear a white uniform and use a traditional old fashion espresso machine, with proper levers so steam can measured out. My father and my sister have been having a coffee there every Saturday morning for years. On Celia’s first trip to Naples I introduced her to this place that she now defines as best purveyor of coffee in the world. They only use coffee made by a small company, Passalacqua, which makes excellent roasts. My favourites home blends are Mehari and Cremador (the latter is a quite strong and chocolaty).
When in Naples I can’t resist drinking coffee at bars with a dangerous frequency. Anyway I didn’t suffer sleeping problems.

Maria and Gennaro invited me again for supper and this time she produced an astonishing "pasta e patate con provola”, pasta, potatoes and provola. I make my own version at home but in Tuscany I found difficult to source provola, which is a smoked, fresh semi soft cheese, not unlike mozzarella and typical of Naples.

Public transport in Naples is really rather good but getting around is made even more fun by the publicity. Advertising in Naples has it own rules, unlike the rest of Italy where advertisers know too well that they have to woo the people. In Naples advertisements have to be funny and witty, and they’re often in Neapolitan, my language, so in the underground station sometimes I have to stop myself bursting into laughter, the other passengers were less reactive as they probably listen to them every day.

When you live away from your home city it is always nice to slot back in. Before going home to Lucca I had to do some food shopping or I would never be forgiven by my girls in Lucca: taralli (savoury crumbly ring biscuits with peppers and almonds), fresh buffalo mozzarella, pane cafone (Neapolitan rustic bread that keeps for long time).

Sunday, 4 December 2011

Chestnut Flour in Northern Tuscany

Looking out of the windows of Le Mura our Tuscan country home the sweet chestnut clad mountains with their stones villages snuggling between the trees dominates the near landscape: lush and green in summer and bare skeletons in winter. The woods seem as ancient and wild as the hills themselves but the chestnut forest are a testament to the cultivation of an earlier civilisation. The trees were planted because chestnuts were the staple diet of mountain populations in the western part of Eurasia for millennia.

It seems that the Greeks introduced the Castanea Sativa in Europe and later the Romans and the mediaeval monastic orders propagated them. In Italy the chestnuts were mainly ground into flour. Sadly the last commercial mill closed just before our arrival in the village over ten years ago. Now only a handful of growers produce this wonderful flour. A more poignant tragedy as this is a thoroughly modern product perfect for those with gluten intolerance or healthy eaters because it is low in fat and calories and contains less carbohydrates than regular white flour. This wonderful product was even endorsed in The Guardian by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. The locals still guard this gastronomic tradition and our village friends introduced us to necci, crêpes made simply from the mellow sweet chestnut flour and water, cooked over a flame or open fire between two heavy forged cast-iron plates called testi, passed from generation to generation. The older the testi the more proofed they are and the better the necci. Some families even still use terracotta discs lined with chestnut leaves. Local winter festivals would be incomplete without these mouth watering delicacies which can be served either as a savoury or with a sweet filling. (Recipes, I promise to follow in another post.)

Our woodman and friend, Antonio is one of the few still producing a small amount of flour in the traditional way and so I was more than delighted when he  suggested that I follow the course of the chestnut from tree to flour.

Part one – Mid October. Gathering sweet chestnuts.
I had my first rendezvous with Antonio on a damp morning in mid October. Finding the exact meeting point deep in the wood adjoining our land was in itself quite a challenge. The old chestnut trees were gothic and I almost felt I was walking in an enchanted forest penetrating much deeper than I normally do. Eventually I heard the distant rumble of an engine and hone in on Antonio, his brother in law Gino and his mother Maria Francesca, literally hovering up the prickly cupules that contain the nuts. After ingesting the chestnuts the machine that looks like a cross between a vacuum cleaner and a triffid spits out the prickly cupules. Antonio hoovers every corner of his land: no cupule escapes. The chestnuts are then stored in sacks.

Part 2 –Mid November - At the Metato.

If you wander around Northern Tuscany you’ll see little stone two storey buildings too small to be houses (even if some of them have been converted by foreign residents). Each  floor has its own entrance and there are no stairs, which is why they’re built into the side of a bank. This is the place where the chestnuts are dried. The process takes about a month. On the ground floor of the  Metato a special fire is prepared using very well seasoned chestnut wood and the discarded dry skins of the previous year’s chestnuts. The fire mustn’t produce flames. The first floor is where the chestnuts are laid. Antonio for the full month comes twice a day. First thing in the morning at around 7 and 12 hours later before supper. He checks the fire on the ground floor, it must just smoulder. He may add another piece of wood if needed. Then he stirs the chestnuts on the floor above. Even 50 years ago the Metato for the month of October was the centre of village life. The fire would provide warmth for everybody and stories were told. Northern Tuscany, Garfagnana in particular, is famous for its fairy tales and legends. Sadly now everybody sits in front of the telly or computer screen.

At the end of the drying month in mid December  I met up again with Antonio at the Metato, which is wedged between the woods at the edge of the village and a small plot of land full of chickens. When I arrive Antonio, Maria Francesca, his Father Gianvi and small son Giovanni are already hard at work feeding the chestnuts into a machine that breaks the chestnuts’ now crisp skins leaving the clean dry fruit ready to be taken to the mill. Gianvi, who loves tradition, demonstrates how the chestnuts were cleaned before they got the machine: he puts a few pounds of chestnuts in a flabby canvas bag and holding the top with both hands starts bashing it against a stump with all his strength. A few minutes later he showed me the content of the bag. The brown calybiums were broken; the fruits also were damaged, then he blew away the dry skins. A back breaking slow job, the machine produces a much neater job in a fraction of the time.

Antonio keeps climbing on the side of the machine to put the chestnuts in a funnel on the top. The dried chestnuts are pushed into a big pipe to the lower level where they’re collected in buckets.
Between the shell and the chestnut there is a fluff that now floats freely in the air.  Gino replaces him and we take in turns to push more chestnuts in the pipe. 

The ventolaccio which is the waste, is piled up. It will be stored for next year when it will be needed to make the smouldering fire.

Antonio puts the chestnuts in bags ready for the mill. There’s not very much time for lunch, the job must be finished before dusk.

Part 3 – At the Mill.
A few days later on a nasty damp morning I met up with Antonio in the valley . His van is loaded with the bags of chestnuts. Like all good Italians, we down a coffee before setting off for Fabbriche di Vallico, a village in the mountains on the edge of the Garfagnana where there is an old recently restored mill. It’s all very green and wet. We unload the sacks, there don’t seem to be very many for all that effort. The owner of the mill greets us. He’s very pleased I came with Antonio as he is very proud of his mill and rightly so.

Running beside the mill is a stream but the water sadly isn’t used to power the stones as if there isn’t enough water it becomes a problem, therefore Fosco the owner bought a small electric engine. He says he needs very little electricity to run the mill. I hope one day he will go back to water power or at least have a dual system. There are four grinding stones in the mill. Two of them are for chestnuts, one for corn, the forth one is resting now. Today Fosco has a problem, a few chestnut, not entirely dry have caramelised and if  the residue is not removed they can damage the stones. Fosco hoists one stone and very patiently chisels the dry molasses. He can now put the stone back and restarts the milling. Opposite there is another stone grinding corn for polenta.

Antonio’s flour is now ready and Fosco is collecting and bagging it. We thank Fosco and drive back to the valley.
A few days later I am in Antonio’s house. Maria Francesca presents me with a bag of chestnut flour. In the village everybody has reserved their bag, the quantity produced is very small so there is nothing left.

The flour has a wonderful taste that is in my opinion enhanced by being dried over a natural fire. It seems however the French don’t like the smoky flavour and require the chestnuts to be dried using electric ovens. Antonio’s flour is all produced  and consumed locally, lets hope that his young son will continue when the time comes to make the flour and perhaps even reopen the village mill.