Thursday, 23 September 2010

September market in Lucca Tuscany

Most foreigner visitors think of Italy through the eyes of the Renaissance or even the Dolce Vita, Italians instead, surprisingly have a much stronger fascination with the Middle Ages. Far from being the dark age, here it is often seen as a kind of return to an age of innocence between the collapse of the Classical Age and the grandeur of the Renaissance. Mediaeval People had a simple life, they were rural more than urban. The cities were small and surrounded by well tendered countryside. This has been witnessed by hundreds of artists, who produced paintings, frescoes and illuminated books. Scenes of ordinary life can be found carved on dozens of churches and cathedrals.

Nowadays, after a millennia, most cities, towns, villages, or even hamlets have at least one mediaeval fair or festival a year. Lucca has more then one but the mother of all the festivals happens in September when dozens of events revolve around the Celebrations of the Volto Santo (a mysterious wooden statue of Christ) on the 13th of September with a rather evocative procession lit by thousands of candles. The weekend  before the parade there had been a 3 day fair, where hundreds of people were involved in a re-evocation of mediaeval life just below the walls of Lucca.

The day after the big procession there is a market fair in Borgo Giannotti the old Jewish quarter just outside the walls. They sell anything and everything but I was obviously interested in the food stalls. This market takes place 4 times in September. It is advertised as a maxi market and is terribly crowded. I went on the 14th and had to navigate through several streams of people. I wanted to take a lot of pictures. On the edge of the market there were a couple of stalls selling Brigidini di Lamporecchio, thin, crispy wafers flavoured with aniseed and made on the spot in most Tuscan fairs.

Borgo Giannotti in normal everyday life has got a lot of very interesting stores. Food is well represented and there are great shops selling kitchenware, glasses in any canonical shape, baskets, pottery, bottles, knifes and any kind of equipment for grape harvesting, mushroom or olive picking. I might need more than one post in the future to cover the treasures of this area.

For market day most shops had stalls on their doorstep but as it was a market and not a food fair there was sadly no tasting.
Not only Tuscan food was represented on the stalls, there were also delicious olives and sottolio (vegetables preserved in oil) from Calabria and Marzipan from Sicily.

Lucca was largely represented by earthy ingredients. Cured pork first of all, but also porcini mushrooms, roots, vegetables and fresh pulses, but I was mostly intrigued by the salacchini, little dry fish that one day I’m going to buy and test.

I got to the end of the main street and was about to turn back to explore all the side streets but a surprise was lurking. There was some movement near the old cattle market and I decided to investigate. To my astonishment I found  that  there was a large livestock section. There were horses, cows, calves, ponies and even pigs.
All the animals looked quiet and peaceful and were seemingly enjoying the warm sunny day.

I returned to the market to explore all the side streets. I found the most beautiful rustic pancetta (cured bacon) that resembled hanging torpedoes.

There were Porchetta vans so I couldn’t resist and bought a large sandwich.

There were also lots of kitchenware stalls, one of them selling pots made in pietra ollare (soaprock).

The stalls finished in Luna Park, the September fun fair. The area was already getting busy and the rides starting up with their first punters.

I have now marked out the best stalls and next market day I’ll bring a couple of bags to fill.

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

How To Cook a Perfect Pasta

I still have in my mind my father’s expression in front of a bowl of pasta in a restaurant. ‘Hanno fatto la pasta molla’ (They overcooked the pasta) He said. That sealed the fate of the restaurant.

Nevertheless sometimes during our meals at home he would appreciate some rather slimy pasta that occasionally arrived at the table. A contradiction? Not really. I worked out that there was a reason for his inconsistency. He enjoyed a good bowl of pasta in a restaurant and expected to have it served “state of the art”. But when it came to sludgy spaghetti at home, his childhood memories resurfaced.

The reason for that is the quality of pasta depends also on its protein content, though he was not aware of this. Before WWII food in Italy was scarce and expensive and people were not really food conscious in the same way  as we are now, so his mother might have unwittingly bought low grade pasta.
Dry pasta is more traditional in the South of Italy, especially around the Naples region where there are still many very good makers. Until not long ago, and I remember it very well, pasta was sold by the weight and wrapped in beautiful blue paper. Every Salumeria (delicatessen) had its pasta counter where the “pastaio” would serve dozens of different  shapes of pasta.

If you want to serve a state of the art pasta,  the first thing to do is to chose a good dry pasta and to check the protein percentage (pasta is not just carbs !!!) on the label. It must be high and not less then 12,5 %, the higher the better. 14 % is great. It means that the pasta was made with high quality flour. It also important that it is made with “semola di grano duro”, which means coarsely ground durum wheat. Good quality pasta is tastier and as the Italians say ‘tiene la cottura’, meaning that the pasta doesn’t turn into a gelatinous mass. Top quality pasta has the dough drawn, through a traditional bronze machine, that means that the pasta surface is rugged and when eaten has a texture. This information is also stated on the packaging (Trafilati al bronzo).

I have cooked a bowl of spaghetti and I have chosen the  Garofalo Brand.  Voiello and De Cecco are also excellent. The latter is also more widely available in supermarkets outside Italy.

To cook dried pasta perfectly you need a large saucepan  filled with water. Then you have to add salt. To give you an idea of a ratio  the proportion should roughly be:

4 cups (1 Litre) of water
1½  tablespoons (10 grams) of salt
4 ounces of pasta

Celia, my wife, was given by a friend, a shell that holds the correct amount of salt for our saucepan.
The exact  quantity of salt however depends on personal taste and how salty the sauce or the topping is. But also bear in mind that when you drain the pasta most of the salt will go down the drain with the water.

You need the following utensils:

A large saucepan
A wooden spoon or a large fork if you are doing spaghetti or similar long shaped pasta.
A kitchen timer
A colander

A good pasta must be ‘al dente’, (literally to the tooth), which means that it has to be slightly undercooked.
Read how many minutes cooking time the manufacturer recommends and subtract one minute because while you are draining the pasta and preparing it to be served it keeps cooking because it is still hot for a while. Later you will adjust the time according to your own taste.

Now bring the salted water to a brisk boil, then add the pasta (be carefull not to splash hot water) and stir it for a few seconds in order to avoid it conglomerating.

Repeat the operation every 2/3 minutes.

Towards the end of the prescribed cooking time, try the pasta to check that it is cooking properly and the suggested cooking time is right (which is not always the case ). The pasta should be soft with a slight bite to it .

When the timer rings or you think the pasta is cooked take the saucepan off the stove and drain the pasta with the colander in the sink, making sure that you are not scalding yourself!

Pour the drained pasta in a serving bowl and add immediately the sauce or topping that you have prepared separately. Mix gently. The reason you need to do it sooner more then later is that pasta without a lubricant tends to glue into a mass and spaghetti in particular tend to became inextricable.

As I said before, pasta, especially spaghetti, must be eaten ‘al dente’.  It means that the outside of the noodle is cooked while the central part remained slightly hard. This makes the texture very pleasant. I’m also told by reliable sources that pasta al dente is easier to digest. Well, being myself born in Naples, I prefer pasta al ‘doppio dente’, which means even harder.

In this specific case I thought that simple is beautiful so I have topped my spaghetti with a couple of tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil and a spray of freshly grated parmesan cheese. You will be surprised how good it is.