September 26, 2009

New Market to Table Class in Certaldo-

I am thrilled to be getting back into the Kitchen!

Francesca and I at her stand at the market

I start my collaboration with Villa Poggiolaia this week with a custom cooking class for a group, and then a full week Chianti experience for two sisters!

Saturday is the smaller market in the downtown piazza, so when I shop on Wednesdays at the larger, wilder market, I know I can still get more fresh products Saturday from Francesca.

But Wednesday is the most fun, the weekly markets are really you get to know a village. The stands move from one town to another .

Wednesday is also the Siena Market day around the Fortezza-
Thursday in Poggibonsi
Friday in Colle Val D'Elsa
Saturday smaller in the main Piazza in Certaldo- one fish stand and two fresh fruit and vegetables.

So when you come to a village I hope you can attend a market day- for me it is where I can pick up fun kitchen items are great prices. I have seen ceramics made for America at half the price.

Bring an empty suitcase to stock up!

September 20, 2009

La Vendemmia- Schiacciata con L'uva

In Italy, each region has seasonal dishes which one can make once a year. September is the wine harvest, vendemmia, and in Tuscany we make the Schiacciata con l'uva.

A simple bread dough, often enriched with a rosemary-infused olive oil, is rolled out into a top and bottom layer and filled with Concord grapes, here called Uva Fragola, making a natural jam baked right into the bread.

The best recipes ooze with syrup! At my Florence bakery near the market, Ivana Braschi makes a fresh fig schiacciata which is incredible. Now that I have found an abandoned fig tree near my house in the countryside. I will try making my own.

Here is my recipe from my cookbook-

Schiacciata con l’Uva Tuscan Grape bread

1/4 cup olive oil
1 rosemary branch

2 lbs red wine grapes, Concord grapes or blueberries

1 lb flour

1 cake fresh yeast
1/2 cup sugar


Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

  • Heat rosemary branch in olive oil. Remove rosemary.
  • Dissolve yeast in 1 cup warm water.
  • Place flour in a large bowl and add the yeast mixture. Stir to mix. Add the rosemary-scented oil and 4 Tbs. sugar.
  • Knead dough until smooth.
  • Place in greased bowl.
  • Cover and let rise until doubled.
  • Divide dough in half. Roll out into a thin rectangle.
  • Place on greased cookie sheet.
  • Top with 1/2 of the grapes.
  • Sprinkle with sugar and drizzle with oil.
  • Cover with other half of dough, rolled out as before. Seal edges by folding bottom edge over top.
  • Press down on dough to crush grapes.
  • Cover top with remaining grapes.
  • Crush these too, to release juices.
  • Sprinkle with sugar and drizzle with honey.
Bake at 350 degrees until golden. Baste, if possible, with any juices.

September 16, 2009

Italian Treasures- Andrea Bezzecchi- Acetaia San Giacomo

Acetaia San Giacomo
Novellara, Reggio Emilia

It is harvest time!

Andrea Bezzechi at the winery buying the mosto for his traditional balsamic vinegar
from Dario at the organic winery Villa Castellazzo
which is also an agritourismo

Why is it that a traditional balsamic vinegar from Reggio Emilia or from Modena is $125 a bottle? If you ever have seen what it takes to make it, it seems like a real bargain!

  • Start with grape juice and lose 70% in cooking it down.
  • Invest in 5 to 7 different kinds of handmade wooden barrels.
  • Wait 12 years to sell your first bottle of traditional balsamic vinegar ( if you aren't lucky enough to have inherited your set of barrels from dad or grandpa).

True balsamic vinegar does not have vinegar added to it, nor sugar or glucose. It is a time honored traditional condiment for food, passed on generation after generation. The grocery store balsamic vinegars were created for a market that wants things NOW.

Although it may seem expensive in America to buy a bottle of Traditional Balsamic Vinegar at $125 a bottle which is 1/2 cup of liquid gold. Time is the most expensive part in the preparation.

I went with Andrea Bezzechi of Acetaia San Giacomo on his acquisition of "mosto" to start this years batch. The color of the freshly crushed grape juice was amazing. Electric almost.

Andrea brought the mosto back to the Acetaia ( where one makes their Aceto Balsamico) and began the long slow process of reducing it by 70%.

Part alchemist, part mad scientist it takes patience and passion to create this elixer dating back to 30 BC. Andrea showed me written documentation from Virgil and Apicius referring to the cooking of grape juice, called sapa in the Latin texts, now saba.

Cooking the grape juice must stops fermentation and preserves the juice. We tasted a 25 year old saba that Andreas late dad made. It is sweet and rich, much like prune juice, quite concentrated.
I have had saba drizzled on desserts from the south and it is lovely. I use this light condiment often in savory cooking to deglaze a pan for a sauce instead of Marsala.

The saba is then left to acidify naturally and moved into large wooden barrels called Badesse.
From there they being the long slow process of becoming balsamic.

The word balsamic refers to the essence that the saba extracts from the different woods of the barrels used for aging. A set is called a batteria. Andrea's barrels are:

  • Cherry
  • Chestnut
  • Beech
  • Oak
  • Juniper
  • Mulberry
  • Acacia
Barrels are part of your inheritance and when a child is born a new set is added

Once a year some of the balsamic is removed from the smalleset barrel and taken to be judged.
In Reggio, it is not the years, but a very controlled level of quality they look for in flavor and balance.

The balsamic is taken from the next smallest barrel to replace what was removed in the smallest and so on, and the largest barrel in the set is then filled from the Badessa barrels. In the foto you can see the barrels are left open, covered with small cloth napkins and then the tops to help evaporation.

After touring, while the mosto was slowly reducing- we did a tasting of Andrea's products:

Two orange label ( aragosta- which means lobster for the red)
Silver- argento
Gold- oro
and his apple balsamic, Essenza and Condimento, which are not considered Balsamic Vinegars, but condiments.

When I use Traditional Balsamic Vinegar, for me, it is like wearing Chanel profume.
I always get kissed!

That is worth any price. A one ounce bottle of Chanel is $260. You wear a tiny drop at a time and it lasts forever.

The same with a Traditional Balsamic Vinegar( TVB) - one tiny drop is all you need as a portion.
To showcase the TBV, Andrea served us drops on 24 and 36 month old Parmesan Cheese.

For dessert- WOW- a tiny scoop of vanilla gelato served in a shot class with San Giacomo's signature porcellan tastings spoon laying on top to recieve the drizzle of balsamico and some saba on the bottom.

My favorite way to end a meal

A young bottle of balsamico in Italy costs 45 euro a bottle and a bottle holds 100 1ml portions which are an eyedropper full- that is a lot of balsamico at 50 euro cents a portion. In the USA, it would be $1.25 a portion. Now it doesn't seem expensive!

See my recipe for the Montagliari apple tart-
I serve this with a scoop of gelato and drizzle with balsamico- ONLY the traditional!

Because I love my friends and I can.

September 13, 2009

I Adore September

September 1984- the month my life changed

I wanted to title this blog post I HATE AUGUST- but decided to look on the bright side!

In Italy, if anything can go wrong it will in August, when everyone one is on vacation and nothing gets done. I had paperwork in process with the Italian government which took about three months.When I finally picked up the new permits, they are only good for 3 months and need more paperwork done to make them finally permanent.

My computer hard drive blocked up so I was "crippled" until the shops reopened for repairs.

The heat was devastating and makes me go brain-dead; I over did it one day and in my exhausted state returning home on the train, I LOST my Nikon SLR- high price to pay.

So finally we are in my beloved September.
As a perpetual student, for me, September is the starting of a new year- new beginnings.
Twenty-five years ago, I bought a one-way ticket to Europe and arrived in Paris! I was hoping to find a job in France and take a break before moving up to California's wine country to open my own pastry shop. Paris, Lyon and Nice- connecting with friends or friends of friends along the way to make connections.

I had planned to come to Florence for a month to study Italian and check it out. My roommate Cathy told me, " You will love Italy and Italy will love you!".
No truer words were ever spoken.

I was not a Italophile- I was smitten with France. But the key was that France was not smitten with me. I always felt that my French was never good enough to be loved by the French.
Thirteen years of classes were not enough- one needed to be perfect!

I arrived in Italy in October- and it was love at first site. They don't have the pastries that France does, but the passion for life won me over.

So the heat has broken, I have my MACBOOK back and am ready to roll!

I also have new programs online
. Just up the hill from me is a beautifully restored villa with apartments and a house for rent where I will be holding Wednesday cooking classes and my new Kitchen in Chianti Culinary Weeks at Villa Poggiolaia. I hope you can join me in my Chianti in the hills of Certaldo with San Gimignano in the distance!

If Italy is not in your plans this year- I am coming closer to home!
I will be the guest chef at Casa Luna in San Miguel D'allende in Mexico. The place looks spectacular with this three kitchens and organic farm.

If you follow me here and are also on Facebook or Twitter I am too!
facebook Divinacucina and twitter @divinacucina

See you soon I hope!

Here is a quick little recipe I made yesterday for lunch:
When I first arrived in Florence I went up to Fiesole the hill town overlooking the city and sat outside to have a pizza. I ordered a peperoni pizza, expecting to get a pizza with spicy salami slices. Instead it was covered with bell pepper slices! YUCK! There are many of those sort of "lost in translation" mistakes that happen when one doesn't speak the language. I speak Italian almost perfectly now, but still don't like bell peppers on my pizza, but adore roasted red bell peppers.

Here is my take on turning them into a :

Peperoni "Pizza:Gluten-free
I roast the bell peppers whole and then place them in a bag to sweat, making it easier to peel them.

Cut into 1/4's, place in a skillet and top with mozzarella cheese, torn into pieces.
Sprinkle with oregano, anchovies if you like, capers and drizzle with oil.
Heat covered on top of the stove, creating an oven.

Serve hot.