On Italian Tomatoes

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In the two and a half years prior to starting the beautiful journey that is writing a cookbook (of which more in another post) I have been working in the food industry in London, creating content for a company (Natoora) that sources stunning fruits and vegetables from the continent. It was a job, and like any job, it had its highs and lows. But it gave me the chance to travel and, most of all, to meet some very talented and inspiring growers from my own country.

I have been treasuring many aspects of this experience. For one, it opened my eyes to the magic world of Italian tomatoes. For long I thought that the tomato range began and ended with what grew in my grandparents’ gardens. Years later, my trips through Italy and my many visits to various tomato growers told me otherwise. I soon realised that there are thousands of varieties grown on Italian soil that I had no idea existed. In a world dominated by watery vine and thickly-skinned cherry tomatoes sold all year round, the discovery that there is an old man in Liguria (Giovanni) who grows heirloom Bull’s Heart tomatoes the way my Grandfather did (outdoors, extensively, with care and yet minimum intervention); or that there is a young man in Sicily (Francesco) who still uses bees to pollinate his tomato plants (the way people used to do in the old days) was nothing short of moving.

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Black Locust Flower Fritters (Frittelle di Acacia)

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I had almost forgotten how glorious springtime in Veneto can be. How warm the May sun can shine, and how pleasant it is to eat lunch outside with the white roses intertwined around the wooden pergola. How early strawberries ripen here, and how late the sun sets. I had almost forgotten how much I yearned for some proper spring weather in the past four years, despite the blooming magnolias and the dangling wisteria. I am reminded now, here, sitting at my old desk, the window wide open and a sweet scent of orange blossoms blowing from the garden.

Two weeks in my homeland and I’ve already fallen into some good old habits: munching on pan biscotto (some local sort of crunchy bread) while waiting for lunch; circling the house and the garden multiple times throughout the day in search for ideas; going for long walks turned into foraging expeditions; and drinking too much espresso, sometimes with a dash of grappa, too, usually on Sundays. Whenever we go for walks together, Dad joins me in my foraging efforts, mostly because he loves weeds as much as I do. On our last trip, for instance, we found dandelion, nettle, and bruscandoli (wild hops), the holy trinity of Venetian wild edible plants. We picked two bagfuls in total, then proceeded to wash them and turn them into a huge skillet of stir-fried greens with pancetta, a nettle frittata, and a risotto with wild hops, which were still surprisingly tender and reminiscent of rosemary.

And now that the last of the young shoots and leaves have morphed into tough grown-ups, it’s time to pick edible wildflowers. Late spring is their moment. Florid bushy trees of elderflower (sambuco) and black locust (faux acacia or robinia, or simply acacia as Italians call them) grow between parcels of land. Their branches have been heavy with flowers for weeks now – one can smell them before even seeing them. Black locust flowers – dangling clusters of tiny, intensely perfumed white flowers – are slowly coming to an end, though many trees are still in bloom: we have been picking basketfuls of flowers to fill every vase in the house, their beauty and sweetness a fleeting bliss before they fade and wither and bend, spent. Many have been reserved for the kitchen, too, and destined  to a dip in cold batter and a jump in hot oil. Frying flowers is hardly a novelty – think about squash blossoms – but it seems to be one of the best and most classic ways to enjoy edible varieties like acacia. Besides, I find eating flowers quite poetic, most especially when their sweet flavour is enclosed in a crisp shell and enhanced by a light veil of sugar or a drizzle of honey – a savoury version would be just as heavenly served as a snack with a glass of prosecco.

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A New Cookbook & a Recipe Preview (Risi e Bisi)

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The Premise

When I first moved to university and started to cook for myself, it wasn’t from a cookbook. It wasn’t from a hand-scribbled recipe notebook either, because no one in my family ever kept one. I mostly played it by ear, using the few basic skills I had picked up from Mum. I knew, among other things, how to make a decent plate of pasta in a small array of fashions; a good risotto with a few variations (pumpkin, peas, radicchio, asparagus or mushrooms); a fine roasted chicken; and a balanced salad dressing. I liked cooking, but I also liked not cooking. I loved having the luxury of eating cheese on toast for four days in a row, because I was finally living alone, playing adult, and responding to no one other than myself. Stirring pots interested me to a point; I had stronger urges.

Then again, food wasn’t yet the ever-embracing trend that it is now. Back then, properly written recipe books were spare and rare, particularly in Italy, where many households owned, if any, one or two at most (Artusi and The Silver Spoon). In my family, for instance, I have never seen a cookbook circulating; certainly not on our coffee table, and definitely not in the kitchen. We might have owned a couple, but never used them. Mum liked to cook on a whim, make stuff up, wing it a lot, rely on classics. She, too, had stronger urges. Rather than cookbooks, she bought novels. She found following recipes somewhat tedious and cooking a distraction from her devouring passion for fictional characters. The less time spent in the kitchen, the more time with her nose buried in books.

In this instance, I turned out to be very much my mother’s daughter. I grew up loving fiction books to bits and had enrolled into a foreign language degree at university with the ambition to become a literary translator. I spent a good part of my spare time consuming British and American literature of all caliber while chasing the dream of mastering the English language as it was my own. Of course, I failed. I realised pretty soon that I was failing – struggling, stumbling on accents and sentences – and instead of pushing harder, I lost momentum, preserving my interest in reading but not my ambition in translating.  Around then, my dreams took an abrupt U-turn. Food had all the while grown to be a strong passion, something that must have always been within me but that suddenly erupted like the most active of volcanoes. I don’t actually recall where it all started, but I know that I began reading massive piles of academic papers about food – food sociology, anthropology, public health and what not – and went down such a slippery slope, such a terribly deep rabbit hole (I’m known for these) that the only way I could get it out of my system was to write and write and write about it all. And so I did – 120 polished pages of thesis about food and culture and society, a terribly boring piece of writing and yet something I still think about 7 years on, smiling at the fervour of those days. Did I get food out of my system then? Far from it.

Fast forward a couple of years, I left the translation gig behind and went on to study food and gastronomy. I also opened a blog (this one) with the intention to share my culinary deliriums and experiments (I was cooking a lot more at that point). The problem was, I didn’t have the tools. I wanted to write in English, of course, but I lacked the rich and vivid vocabulary that would enable me to write in an engaging tone and without the stuck-up exrpessions of academia. Proper food writing was still a novelty then. I was already reading a few English blogs, but it took me some time to discover what was largely considered to be the ‘good stuff’ – the basics of English food writing: Elizabeth David, Jane Grigson, M.K.Fisher, Simon Hopkinson, Ruth Reichl and so on. As soon as I did, however,  I dug in and, to my surprise, I acknowledged in them much of what I loved about fiction – a compelling prose, engaging and vividly descriptive. I found stories, characters, enchanting lands. In some I discovered a new perspective on the food of my own country; in others, notions on fascinating foods and dishes I didn’t know about. In all of them, I admired the fact that they could be read very much like a novel. But perhaps most importantly, in them I found a reason to belive that good food and good words are best when hand in hand, and the motivation I needed, at one point, to keep at it – keep cooking, exploring, and writing.

Those of you who have followed this blog for quite some time might have seen a bit of an evolution and many changes as a struggled to find my voice and to articulate it in a way that didn’t make people cringe. Thank you for bearing with me all this time. As for the content matter, after much searching, I believe I finally figured out what it is that I like to write about and cook the most (for now, at least). Funnily enough (and I think I gave you some clues here) it’s Venetian food. It’s the food that I know best, that I can cook without a recipe, and that spark the highest dose of memories and recollections about people, flavours, places; the sort of food for which I have a story to tell – my own, my family’s, and my homeland – and that I feel more compelled and comfortable sharing.

The Book

It’s with this conviction that I started to nurture the idea of creating a narrative cookbook about the food of my origins. For someone who didn’t approach cooking with a recipe book by her side – who didn’t grow up in a family who ever used a cookbook – but that had since accumulated quite a few; the thought of writing a cookbook came to feel like the natural progression after the fiction frenzy and the food fanatism: it was something I knew I would be fine throwing myself into, head first; a way to bring my two passions (food and writing) together into a project that would feel both challenging and fulfilling.

Almost a year has past since that first spark of inspiration. The initial idea has evolved, changed, detoured, but it eventually found a home with an agent and then a publisher, and, around October of last year, it began to take shape in the form of frantic, hiccupping but at times gloriously satisfying writing sessions; massive creative highs and self-esteem crisis; piles of (more or less delicious) food from recipe testing; continuous cycles of dishwashing; and dozens of red-marked word documents open on my desktop. I woke up one day around Christmas time, walked to the kitchen to a pile of dirty dishes and random leftovers, and it all suddenly felt very overwhelmingly real. It still does, every day, in a new way that remains, like I hoped, challenging and fulfilling. This is all to say that, well, this book is really happening, and writing it here – sharing the news with you all after a few months of behind-the-scenes work in progress – strengthens that feeling of real.

Much in the same way Diana Henry described in her piece about the making of a cookbook, this book is far from being my brain child only. In fact, in its ever-evolving nature, it’s also the product of a group of people who believed in the initial project and helped me to believe in it too; who gave me guidance and precious advice when I had no clue of what it is that I was doing; who listened to my thoughts, ideas, concerns, and welcomed my input; and that helped me to develop the germ of an idea into something people would (hopefully) find nice and useful and worth buying.

The book will be published in June 2017 by Guardian Faber (press release). The title is Veneto, Recipes from an Italian Country Kitchen. It will be first and foremost a recipe book, with dishes largely inspired by the corner of Venetian inland I’m from. But it’ll also be part memoir (for lack of a better word) and part journal (a bit like this blog, only with an editor who can fix my choppy sentences and cut my wordiness; and a designer that will make it all fit into a neat package) with stories, anecdotes, glimpses of daily life past and present, portraits of people and places, and so on. It will have, of course, heaps of photos, of the dishes as well as of the land and its landmarks, which I’m working on as I go and will focus on more in-depth upon my return to Veneto next week. From now until publication and beyond, I’m hoping to share glimpses of the progress here and on Instagram, bits of experience as I go, some insights if you’re interested. After all, it has become such a huge part of my life that there’s no point in keeping things separate.

Content-wise, the book will have plenty of traditional dishes from the region as well as some family recipes that are less traditional but not less loved. To give you a better idea of what’s to come, I thought to share one of the recipes that I plan to include in the book: risi e bisi (rice and peas). It’s a huge classic across the Veneto, of course, but also one that holds a special place in my family’s repertoire. It’s the sort of dish that shouts the season through its bright greenness and light spirit – a quintessential springtime recipe, particularly delicious, I’d like to think, on those days in which the rain still brings a chill to the air.

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A Fresh Look

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Those of you who have stumbled upon this space lately might have noticed a few changes. For starters, a fresh look – a new layout, identity, and interface. There’s still some work to do (isn’t there always?), and more novelty will come as I find my speed and return to share recipes and stories (a much-neglected activity, lately). For now, I hope you like what you see, and that these few changes will make the blog easier to browse and navigate. For recipes, in particular, there is now a category drop down menu on the side where you can browse by style and/or by season (can you believe it? I hardly can!), plus a recipe index linked at the top, and a search box where you can type anything and hopefully come across something relevant to your query. As for travel and city guides, there is now a travel section at the top where you’ll find them organised by region, with a brief description that tells you whether they are simple postcards or proper guides. Lastly, you might have noticed that the URL of this blog has changed, too, so make sure to update your readers with the new address, or subscribe by email using the box on the sidebar, or, if you use Bloglovin’, by following Life Love Food here .

Absorbed by the vortex of all this – plus a trip to New Zealand, and more of which I’ll tell you soon – I came close to the end of my season in Sydney. I’ll be flying back home to Veneto in less than two weeks, and I struggle to come to terms with the idea of how fast the past six months have gone. Last week, we packed our small possessions once again and moved to a small cabin by the ocean. It will be Jesse’s pad and reading retreat once I’m gone, but for now, it’s where I’m spending long days writing, tucked in a nook – a real one – by a window that oversees a shabby yet flourishing garden. Here is where I have found some renewed creative energies after weeks of drought, and it is surprising to me that I don’t have to fight against the temptation of spending my entire time reading and snoozing at the beach. Instead, I often only leave my nook at dusk, walk down to the shore to oxygenate my brain and listen to the waves crashing and the seagulls flap around. Perhaps I just expected autumn to be way upon us by now, while in fact, though days are shorter, it’s still so warm that we are still feasting on very summery food.

These six months in Sydney have been my first experience with overturned seasons – with Christmas popsicles and Easter pumpkin. And although I can’t really say I had a taste of the cold season here, I am happy to be flying back to more good weather and for newly found long days, and to spring produce in full swing. I am looking forward to the last of the white asparagus, steamed and served, classically, with boiled eggs; and to the last of the wild herbs (poppy leaves, hop shoots, dandelion). I am looking forward, too, to the first strawberries from the garden, and to the many courgette flowers to stuff and fry. But I am perhaps even more excited about the first sweet peas in their pastel, thin shells. Dad told me he planted many rows this year, and I can’t wait to cook a storm of spring dishes in many shades of greens.

I’ll be back soon with some exciting news, and a beloved seasonal recipe. Meanwhile, if have any comments, thoughts and ideas on how to make this space better (for example, if you have any tips to make the recipe printer-friendly), I’d love to hear them.

Ossobuco with Gremolata

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There were a couple of nights a few weeks ago, before the heat decided to come and make itself comfortable, in which the air sweeping from the harbour carried an unusual chill. One night, on our usual evening walk along the water  – the ritual that separates the working part of the day from that of leisure, contemplation and unrushed time in the kitchen – we had to put an extra layer over our t-shirts. We walked hugging ourselves the whole way, wondering where such breeze was coming from, dark clouds gathering swiftly over our heads.

We rushed home just in time before the first downpour started. Another followed shortly, and then another, at seemingly regular intervals, as if the sky was emptying itself by the bucketload, taking a break between each. We thought it a good night for a robust bottle of red and for lingering in the kitchen and around the table while waiting for a warming dinner.

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