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Apparently, you’re not supposed to apologise for abandoning your blog for weeks or months. However, I probably should acknowledge that I haven’t been blogging for an age, and possibly don’t have any readers anymore. It’s been a busy year and I’m not sure I’ve cooked anything especially interesting or new. Anyway, here I am attempting to return to the lemurs. If nothing else, this is a pretty spectacular meal to return with. The lemurs were in Emilia Romagna on a short break with Mama Lemur. She wanted to treat us all to something a bit special, and accordingly we booked dinner at Massimo Bottura’s Osteria Francescana. As you’ll all probably know, it has recently been listed third on the World’s Best Restaurants list, and Bottura’s playful twists on traditional local flavours sounded like the perfect way to splash out. We drove from our base in Bologna to Modena on our final afternoon, took in the lovely duomo and medieval city centre, kicked back with a campari soda in the Piazza Maggiore, and prepared mentally for the culinary onslaught to come.  Read the rest of this entry »

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romei-fresco

Everyone told us that we had to try salama while in Ferrara. You see them all over town hanging in meat shops: big sausages shaped like acorn squash. But although they look (and sound) like massively deformed salami, they are actually not the kind of cured sausage that you slice, but are spiced meat that is cooked and served with mashed potato. They’re famous, but we didn’t actually find them on a menu until our last night. I’ll get to that in a minute. In the meantime, I entertained myself with Ferrara’s historic palazzi. The fresco above is in the Casa Romei, a palazzo built for a medieval administrator but taken over after his death by a monastery. The result is layers of medieval and renaissance decoration, some secular, some religious. The docent who followed me around wouldn’t let me take photographs of the amazing frieze of animals, including wonderfully grotesque leopard-women, but I snuck a picture or two of these gorgeous frescoes. Read the rest of this entry »

tortelli-zucco

I just got back from a work trip to Ferrara, the beautiful medieval town in Emilia-Romagna. I know, sometimes life is tough. In my defence, I did have to sit through a conference that was almost entirely in Italian, so it was actually quite challenging. Still, it was no chore to meet lots of lovely people and be taken out for a series of delicious meals. Ferrara is famous for its tortelli alla zucca, or pasta stuffed with pumpkin and served with either a meat ragú or a butter sage sauce, and I ate this delicious combination at most every opportunity.

Ferrara-duomo

The city is just lovely, and with almost no tourists in December, it’s actually a rather nice time to visit Italy. I spent a pleasant spare afternoon checking out the duomo (disappointing on the inside, but with an impressive facade) and wandering the pretty old streets around the central piazza. The Christmas lights made it all especially magical.

Ferrara-piazza

But from the moment I arrived, food was a major focus. On my way into the conference, I grabbed a quick lunch with Lemur friend JD. He has a nose for good eateries in Italy, the kind of down-home place you can find in every town but only if you know where to look. As soon as we arrived, he sniffed out a cafe whose lunch specials were served on plastic plates – but with delicious food and neighbourhood-style friendly service. We shared a serving of melted scamorza cheese with grilled radicchio that was simplicity itself and yet so very nommable. (By the way, they split the plates. This is just my half!)

scamorza-lunch

Another JD find was Trattoria Il Sorpasso. We meant to go to Il Cucco for lunch, as it had been recommended in an Italian restaurant guide we looked up in the bookstore, but it was closed. Concerned that lunch service was over everywhere (yes, we get concerned about such things), we looked around for a local alternative. I didn’t necessarily think the outside of Il Sorpasso across the road was promising, but JD has the nose and in we went. It turned out to be the best meal we had in Ferrara.

sorpassa-ext

We started with a cavolo nero soup, which was hearty with long-simmered greens, tiny white beans and crispy garlicky croutons.

cavolo-nero-soup

For a secondo, I chose salsiccia con castagne, or sausage with chestnuts. I had expected a whole sausage but what came was more like sausage meat broken up like you would for a pasta sauce, with little nuggets of chestnut mixed into a rich ragú. It was at once sweet from the chestnuts, salty from the sausage and deeply umami and savoury from the sauce. It was insanely good.

salsiccia-castagne

As we digested our completely unnecessary but shockingly good desserts (tiramisu, chocolate cake and ricotta cream), one of the cooks came out to start making pasta dough for dinner. This is where the magic happens!

pasta-making

We did get to Il Cucco eventually, but I’ll leave that story for the next post…

Image by Etruscan places.

Another post from the Lemurs’ recent travels in Italy. We drove around Lake Bracciano to Cerveteri, a very nice little town near the coast in Lazio, but one primarily known for its Etruscan necropolis. The necropolis was actually amazing, a vast city of the dead with long streets full of beautiful buildings you can just walk into and explore. If this place were in the UK or the US, there would be guards, cordoned-off walkways, and no way to experience the spaces in an unmediated fashion. But in Italy, there’s a hacked off dude in a portacabin who gives you an illegibly-photocopied map and off you go into what feels like a your very own discovery of an ancient civilisation. Granted, we were mildly worried that small children might fall into an unmarked pit but hey, we didn’t have any small children so all was well.

But you need a good appetite to explore ancient Etruscan sites, and we stopped off in Cerveteri to eat at Antica Locanda le Ginestre. The restaurant is located in the main square and boasts a gorgeous garden for those willing to brave the heat and eat outside. Read the rest of this entry »

The Lemurs have left behind the architectural overload of Rome and we're spending a week with good friends K and L in the countryside of Lazio. We're in the village of Sutri, not far from the city but offering a whole other experience of Italian life. We're doing some serious relaxing here, with twice daily trips to the fruit lady, the baker and the salumeria being our most strenuous activities. This is the view from our roof terrace as the sun goes down – as Anthony Bourdain likes to say, this does not suck.

Read the rest of this entry »

The lemurs are on a much needed vacation in Italy, kicking off with a weekend in Rome. We've been here 24 hours and so far, my stand out food experience has been cheese. This probably elicits a 'no shit' response from many people but normally I'm not a cheese whore. It's probably the Asian mouth thing – I often find cheese to be a bit much, alarmingly fatty or just unpleasant in texture. I know, it's odd, but anyway, point is, it takes a lot to make me love cheese. And in Rome, the pecorino is transcendent: a generous, excessive, almost pornographic blanketing of sheer happiness on pasta. Read the rest of this entry »

Italian food expert K came to stay last weekend and he arrived with a plan: he’d been reading about the spicy Calabrian sausage nduja in last week’s Telegraph and thought we should try it out. (I should stop here and and remind readers that K just moved to the UK and possibly didn’t realise the implications of buying the Torygraph. Also he was seduced by a freebie that came with the weekend paper. Let’s not judge, we’ve all done that.) Anyway, by good fortune, I went to the Brighton Fiery Food Festival right after we spoke and came across a Calabrian food stall hawking several different kinds of nduja. Either this was the universe telling me to buy nduja or the Calabrian food lobby has a seriously good PR department.

The nice man from BreadTree told me that Calabrians think it is high time people got over their love of chorizo and recognised nduja as the best spiced pork sausage in Europe. To prove his case, he offered two main types of nduja: Nduja di Spilinga and Nero di Calabria. The first was a satisfyingly deep red colour (on the left below) and clearly rich with oil and dried peperoncino chillies. I liked the look of it immediately. Slightly more expensive was Nero di Calabria (on the right), which is organic and made from the famous Calabrian black pigs. I bought some of each for taste test purposes. Read the rest of this entry »

Ok, I know this blog can be a little bit, shall we say, pork-centric. And I admit it: I love me some pig. But I think it is only fair to say that maiale al latte, or Italian pork roasted in milk, is one of the world’s great dishes. I’ve always been slightly obsessed with the way that the milk cooks down to almost nothing, leaving not so much a sauce as a pile of rich caramel nuggets. It’s like savoury dulce de leche, which can only be a Very Good Thing.

I actually came to cooking this dish yesterday in a roundabout manner, via a bag of sorrel. I’d gone to the hippie market on Friday for some vegetables and cheese, and came across big bags of sorrel. I don’t see sorrel in such quantities very often, so I bought it without a clear idea of what exactly I was going to do with it. When lovely Glasgow friends D&J came down for the weekend, I decided that sorrel pesto was the way to go, and thus, that I was cooking Italian. Sorrel pesto is grassy, lemony and sharp, so I wanted something a bit more comforting for a main course, especially given the appalling rainy weather we’ve been having. (Poor D&J had imagined that Brighton in July would mean lying on the beach, walking on the Downs and boutique shopping in town. Instead we huddled indoors with the weekend newspapers and several bottles of wine. Granted, this was not in any way unpleasant, but still.) I hit on maiale al latte as a dish that’s both shockingly simple to make and delicious enough to feed to company.

Now, there are various accounts of maiale al latte that seek to complicate it. Some recipes add aromatics and herbs at the beginning, from garlic and juniper to bay leaves or rosemary. Others seek to render the final sauce more visually appealing by whisking it with cream or wine. To these modernisers I say feh! As Marcella Hazan’s classic recipe in The Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking demonstrates, the true wonder of this dish is its simplicity. The only ingredients you need are pork, milk, butter, salt, pepper. It’s barely a recipe really and yet the results are sublime.

Maiale al latte

  • 1 leg of pork (or other cut that will stand up to long cooking)
  • 2 1/2 cups of whole milk
  • butter and/or oil for frying

Season the meat with salt and pepper but don’t go overboard – the flavours will concentrate as the sauce reduces! Brown the pork all over in the butter and/or oil in a heavy pot. Add a cup of milk, stir while it boils, and turn the heat down low.  Cover the pot, leaving it slightly ajar and simmer gently for about an hour until the milk has cooked down to curds and fat. Turn the meat now and again. Add another cup of milk and go through the same process, then do the same with a half cup of milk – this will take less time to cook down, obviously. With a big chunk of pork leg, I cooked it for about 2.5 hours in total but if your meat requires less cooking time, you can either take out out it early or use less milk. Remove the pork, let it rest for a few minutes, and then slice it. Spoon over the ‘sauce’, which should be lumpy, brown, and yet unutterably delicious.

Adapted from Marcella Hazan’s version, serves 4.

 

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