In the past month, I have used a variety of kitchens, while traveling through Italy. Last year, we visited Tuscany when the sunshine of spring shimmered on the stone farmhouses. You can read more about our springtime adventures here. I feel very lucky to have returned, one year later. The olive groves were heaving with rich green fruit, the vineyards were full of warm yellows and along with the woodlands, they were spread out over the rolling Tuscan hills like a patchwork quilt. In my kitchen, this December, I hope you enjoy a little glimpse of Tuscany and its wonderful Autumnal food.
On our visit last year, we fell in love with the stunning market in San Casciano in Val di Pesa. The market is set on a gorgeous hilltop town and has a view down to olive trees and vineyards below. It was equally as beautiful in Autumn, as it had been in Spring. Instead of bright red tomatoes, eggplants and fresh green garlic of late spring, the market was full of juicy, fragrant bright orange clementines, shiny chestnuts, quinces, cavalo nero and cardo - or cardoon, which have an articoke flavour and look like large celery stalks. They are usually served steamed or braised and in some regions of Italy they are the starter for Christmas lunch, served as a soup with rich chicken broth and little polpette (meatballs).
In addition to the wonderful bounty of fragrant Autumn fruits and vegetables, the market was also filled with beautiful creamy local cheeses, preserved meats such as the fantastic spicy Tuscan salami and of course, there was the amazing porchetta stall. For the colder months of the year, the stall had not only meltingly tender porchetta filled with rosemary, but also a Tuscan speciality - a sandwich slathered with chili oil and filled with tripe. Mr K joined the throng of older gentlemen, all lined up for a tripey, pre lunch snack. The resulting sandwich, Mr K thought was very much like the traditional Greek Easter soup Mayeritsa - only on a lovely piece of bread.
The highlight from the market, for me, was the stunning array of Autumn mushrooms. There were small creamy, chestnut button mushrooms, which were perfect, slowly sautéed in a very hot pan with a little garlic and thyme, a dollop of the white coloured local butter - finished with a sprinkling of sea salt, served on the salt-free Tuscan bread.
Then there were the truly amazing fresh porcini mushrooms. We asked the stall holder selling the porcini mushrooms, the best way to prepare them. He suggested, thickly slicing the porcini, dusting the slices in flour and very gently shallow frying them. The porcini was best enjoyed this way, he suggested, with a glass of new season wine.
While the mushrooms were spectacular, the real show stopper at the market was the beautiful, green, unfiltered first pressed olive oil. There were a number of different oils to choose from and each of the stall holders had both grown theIr olives and pressed them into the beautiful oil. The first pressed oil was so unique in flavour and different to any other type of oil I had ever tried in Australia. Taking a small spoonful, the pepperyness of the oil hit you straight in the back of the throat - almost like I had just taken a small bite out of a hot, fresh chili. It was simply just bursting with antioxidants. It is often said the fresh oil is best, and that it does not age well, unlike wine. After trying these new season oils in Tuscany - I can now completely understand why this is the case. The next task for me will be tracking down some fresh, unfiltered, first pressed oil in Australia this autumn.
The oil at the market was not to be our first encounter with Tuscan oil and olives. Indeed, during our stay in Tuscany, we were surrounded by scenes of olive harvesting and we even had the opportunity to join in some harvesting.
Closer to our villa, in the town of Montespertol, there was also a beautiful selection of freshly pressed oil and new season wine avaliable from both a farm shop and another little store. We found the stores by following a trail of little nonno's, all heading towards the shops with empty bottles ready to be filled with new wine and oil, straight from the steel tanks and barrels.
As luck would have it, we were staying near Montespertoli on the same weekend the town was hosting its new oil, wine and truffle festival. The festival, held in the evening had a wonderful local charm. All of the townspeople of Montespertoli and the surrounding towns had turned out in their thick winter jackets, hats and gloves. There was much bustling in the main tent, to try the new oils and wines. There were also many enthusiastic buyers. Outside, the stalls were selling delicate little homemade Christmas decorations and hampers, filled with homemade preserves. After trying the new oils and wines - and trying to figure out how much we could fit in our suitcases, we donned our wooly hats and headed out to the town streets to enjoy a glass of new wine along with a paper cone filled with freshly roasted chestnuts, while chatting in our smattering of Italian with some of the locals. The festival really instilled us both with a feeling of Christmas and it was an exciting contrast to the hot, mango and cherry filled Australian Christmas we would be returning too.
As our journey in Italy comes to a close, I wish all of you lovely readers a joy filled Christmas - be it with roasted chestnuts on one side of the world, or with mango, cherries and tropical fruits on the other. As always, big thanks go to Celia at Fig Jam and Lime Cordial for hosting this great monthly feature. Until 2014 and January in my kitchen - may you all eat, drink and be merry!