Fishing for clams

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Tuscany, where our azienda agricola is located, seems to have all the luck.  It has a pleasantly mild climate practically all year round; it boasts a cultural life without equal; it has hills, rivers, lakes, and mountains.  Its 400 kilometer long coastline is bathed by two seas:  the Ligurian and the Tyrrhenian.  It even has a handful of beautiful islands that are famous worldwide.

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If we consider that Tuscany’s population is about 3.7 million, we can say that about one fifth of them live along the coast. These (approximately) 740,000 people, with very few exceptions, love the sea profoundly, just as we in the north love our mountains, and they can visit the sea (both in summer and winter) to take the sun, dive in the waves, walk along the shore, have a bite to eat, and relax with good company.

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However, a very small part of Tuscany’s inhabitants like to visit the sea alone, as far as possible from others (not unlike our mushroom hunters), in order to perform an activity totally foreign to our culture:  to fish for clams (also known as cockles).

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I noticed these men every time I went to the sea–the Tyrrhenian Sea, more specifically Marina di Vecchiano, Torre del Lago, Viareggio, Forte dei Marmi, and the Versilia in general–but I did not understand what they were doing.  Still, with their permission (usually granted), I have been  photographing them for a long time.

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This year, I do not know exactly why, I decided to satisfy my curiosity and understand better why these fishermen do and why they defy the weather, so to speak. In effect, aside from the month of April (when the clams reproduce and fishing is prohibited), one can observe muscular men walking up the down in the sea, carrying with force and concentration a contraption that I had never seen before:  “il ferro”–a sort of iron rake with a handle on one side and a bag on the other side.

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In summer, you say, fine, but also in winter?  In winter, they wear black wetsuits which, I hope for them, protects them from the cold during the time they spend with half of their body in the water.   Who dares to return home without enough booty rich enough for two or three portions of spaghetti with clams?  I hope not for them!

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It seemed to me that raking these mollusks is a pastime to which the fishermen dedicate much passion and time. Certainly, things are not as they were thirty years ago, when an average family could live easily on the proceeds of a daily catch of 50 kilos.  Nowadays everything is regulated:  the type of rake, the size of the net, a maximum quantity of 5 kilos daily for amateur fishermen. The controls are rigorous and the fines are hefty.  Even the territory where fishing is allowed is strictly limited.

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For booty taken from the sea, besides, the fishermen must separate clams which are longer than 2 cm from those smaller than 2 cm, and the latter must be thrown back into the water. Often one also finds tiny crabs which are also too small to eat.  Therefore, usually there remains only enough for a lunch or dinner for two or three.  But what a meal! Spaghetti with clams, in fact, is part of the culinary heritage of the Versilia and the true conoisseur visiting these parts should never escape without trying this delicacy.

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Even I wanted to cook a nice plate of pasta with clams, but I knew it was out of the question to ask one of the fishermen to sell me his catch; only over his dead body would I have (perhaps) succeeded.  On the other hand, it is rare to find fishmongers who sell true Tuscan cockles (they often come from France or Spain), and so people must fall back on “regular” clams; they are also good, but they lack that touch of effort and passion that make their Tuscan sisters so special.

May the following delicacy at least once in your life end up on your table.

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Ingredients for 4 persons:

250 gr of spaghetti N° 5

1,5 kg of clams

2 or 3 sprigs each of basil, marjoram, rosmary, and thyme

3 or 4 hot peppers (optional)

4 spoonfuls of extra virgin olive oil

1 glass of dry white wine

Let the clams sit in water for several hours, changing the water 2 or 3 times.  Chop the herbs.  Pour the oil into a large saucepan and, when hot but not boiling, add the herbs, the pepper, and the clams (removed from their water).  Brown them for several minutes, then add the glass of dry white wine.  Cook until the clams are open, and throw away any which remain closed. Remove the half-shells of the clams and put back into the saucepan.  Boil the spaghetti in abundant salted water.  Drain when it is still “al dente”.  Mix the paste with the clams and let sit for a minute or two.  Serve hot.

Anneliese Rabl (translation John McAuliffe) x

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A VIP on the red carpet

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One of the most pleasant ways to become more familiar with Tuscans and their traditions is through food. As soon as the first edible seedlings sprout, one encounters markets and festivals which celebrate many ingredients for succulent dishes. There is something for all tastes: artichokes, beer, boar, pasta, raspberries, strawberries, truffles, wine; the list is endless.

Our azienda agricola is lucky to be located on a nice piece of land on which grow many classic Tuscan fruit trees, among which are about a dozen varieties of cherries; therefore, visiting a cherry festival seemed almost obligatory.

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After some quick research, we discovered that one of Tuscany’s best areas of cherry production is located a stone’s throw away from here, in the Pisan Hills and specifically in Lari, which today is a subdivision of Casciana Terme.

Arriving was easy, since the GPS navigator quickly unraveled the skein of small streets, alleys and lanes. The tiny village of Lari, for its part, turned out to be a medieval hamlet with all effects, including a church, a castle, and a ghost named “Rosso della Paola” (Paola’s redhead).

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The festival has been celebrated for 59 years, always beginning of June, and one can select from among almost two dozen varieties of cherries perfect for buying and either enjoying on the spot or for taking home.  All around this world of colours and tastes was a rich choice of other products: cakes, jams, liquors, pancakes, aprons, dolls, tablecloths, anything connected with cherries. Needless to say, the succulent fruits are divided not only by size, color, skin thickness, and stone shape, but also by final usage, not unlike potatoes:  some are recommended for frying, some for purees, some for baking, etc.

What surprised us pleasantly, aside from the original and elegant decorations throughout the village, was the presence of many young people who, to the joy of the visitors and the locals, put on a performance of breakdance music which brought the festival decisively into the modern times of the twenty-first century.

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Cherries originated in Asia Minor, and it took thousands of years and patient cultivation before housewives opened their kitchens to these small but delicious spheres.  Today, in fact, there is hardly a country that does not have its own recipes with cherries.  Here at Farfalla di Toscana, coming from both the Old and the New World, from the South and the North, we did not know to whom we should give the honor of a personal recipe using cherries.  So, we wrote the names of twenty countries on scraps of paper, put them into a container (of Tuscan terracotta, of course), and cast lots.

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Against all odds, France won; and although France and Italy compete in fashion, cars, food, and the good life, the following recipe seems to us to be not at all bad!  Let’s hope the Tuscans won’t hold it against us…

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Clafoutis

700 gr. of cherries

3 eggs + 2 yolks

100 gr. of flour

100 gr. of sugar

250 gr. of milk

1 sachet of vanillin

1 pinch of salt

Icing sugar

Wash and dry the cherries.  Remove the stems and the stones. Mix the eggs, yolk, and sugar into a frothy mixture.  Add salt and vanillin and gradually stir in the milk and flour.

Pour half the mixture into a non-stick pan (or into a greased pan or a pan covered with baking paper), or into small molds suitable for baking. Distribute the cherries uniformly and cover with the other half of the mixture. Bake in oven over medium heat for 35/40 minutes. Remove from oven, allow to cool.  Sprinkle with the icing sugar and serve as is, or accompanied with whipped cream and/or ice cream.

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Anneliese Rabl (translation John McAuliffe) x

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