A Farewell to Christmas 2016

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Tuscans don’t seem to be keen on removing the Christmas decorations. Mid January 2017, the cheerful Christmas lights are still all around…

 

Anneliese Rabl x

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The nettle is not only prickly…

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When the underbrush leads to the hellebore, the crocuses and the violets and the hazel nuts are filled with hanging yellow flowers, the season of field herbs is not far off.  The use of these seedlings, sprouted from the earth just after the lethargy of winter, has a very long history.  Partly, in fact, many years ago, that is, when our ancestors realized that, aside from game, also fruits and vegetables and the first seedlings of the year could be good to eat. Leaves and roots were an integral part of their daily diets, and also were remedies for illnesses.  If necessary, they even played the role of almost magical plants, which were fundamental for countering negativity and misfortune.

He who has had the privilege of tasting this first greenery, tender and fresh, cooked or cured as per the recipe, must either pass through Tuscany at the end of winter or else live here and thereby fully enjoy the good and genuine regional cooking.  Here, obviously, the teaching of how to gather these small treasures is transmitted in great secrecy from grandmother to mother to daughter. The seedlings are almost never found on the refrigerated shelves of supermarkets, and to taste a dish based on wild herbs is really an experience not to be missed.

As mentioned, it is not easy to find people who are expert in distinguishing the good varieties in a field rich in fresh vegetation.  On the one hand, one must be careful not to gather near streets with heavy traffic or on land which is polluted or too fertilized; on the other hand, instead, it is most important to determine which varieties are edible and which are inedible and, additionally, which are poisonous.

We, to begin, decided to go safely with a plant which grows worldwide and which is easily recognizable; if you happen to touch it, it will cause a burning pain which lasts about 24 hours:  stinging nettles.

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The nettle has been appreciated by the ancient Greeks and Romans and by all peoples after them right up to the present day. Rumor has it that this started much much earlier, with even the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar being fed exclusively nettles for seven years. Offhand it may seem terrible or at least monotonous, but if you take into consideration nettle fillings, sauces, gravies, pies, salads, omlets, risottos, stuffed rolls and so forth, the entire story becomes more believable (and more bearable for the palate…).

Under our loveliest apple tree, near the children’s swing, there is a small space which was always held hostage by nettles and which, until today, we had never managed to weed out.  Therefore, we offered them an agreement: at the end of winter we collect the nettles from the plants that refuse to leave the occupied space, using them to make a nettle sauce ideally suited to accompany pasta, rice, or gnocchi. In return, we let the remaining nettles flourish, multiply, and grow in peace. Will we have done the right thing?

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Nettle Sauce (4 persons)

  • 500 gr. freshly harvested nettles (ours is from under the apple tree…)
  • 1 jar of peeled tomatoes
  • Extra virgin olive oil
  • Salt
  • Pepper
  • Parmesan cheese to taste

Clean, wash, dry, and chop the nettles and put into a saucepan with olive oil; brown for a few minutes. Add the tomatoes with a bit of salt and pepper, cooking over low heat for about 15 to 20 minutes.  The result is a tasty sauce which goes particularly well on rice, pasta, or gnocchi; add grated parmesan to taste.

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Anneliese Rabl (translation John McAuliffe) x

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Discovering Tuscany:  The Abbey of San Galgano

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Today’s frantic lifestyle only rarely gives us free time; that is, a few hours or even an entire day without work, programs, or projects to do.  In effect, these occasions are so rare that, when we have them, we often do not know how to use them.  We like to see some nice places, but we do not want to drive too many kilometers.  And then we must keep an eye on the clock because our house pets do now like to be alone for too long.  And visiting a new region, instead of going back to places we have already seen, is an important point too.

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One fine day in this past January, none of this had value for us.  On the contrary, the day passed smoothly and the place was easily found:  the abbey of San Galgano in the town of Chiusdino, in the province of Siena.  We had heard about the majesty and sacredness of the ruins, and of the beauty of the area.  The weather was not great, but in the winter one must not expect a gentle climate and mild temperatures.

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We were not the only ones to have the idea of visiting this part of Tuscany; in fact, there were lines of cars parking along the road (where no parking was allowed), including our own, but close to the monastery there was also a parking lot for visitors.

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The first impression was quite unexpected:  a skeleton of rock, enormous, which rises from nowhere among fields and meadows and is so impressive that it commands respect and profound admiration.   To begin with, we wanted to understand what there was to know about the abbey.  The works were commissioned by the order of Cistercian monks, who had settled in the region at the end of the twelfth century.  Twenty years later construction began on the monastery, which continued for 50 years and ended with its consecration by the Bishop of Volterra in 1268.

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History tells us that one hundred years of splendor followed, and then came the slow and inevitable decline.  The lead roof was sold in 1550, probably together with works of art and precious treasures; many of the stones were either stolen or moved to different places.  There were some modest attempts to revive the convent, but finally in 1789 it was deconsecrated and left definitively in ruins.

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By now we were ready to visit the building, and so was our camera.  As soon as we entered, we realized that the monastery really was just as the previous visitors had described it:  impressive, stupendous, truly extraordinary.  It was not difficult to imagine the prodigious effect that must have caused the religious ceremonies inside the structure.  All at once, it seemed possible for us to feel, almost to touch, the mystery and the profound spirituality of these walls, the calmness of the soul and the peace inside the hearts of the monks who had chosen to live here.

The visitors had to satisfy themselves with taking photos and selfies in front of the ruins; taking photos without anybody around was a true feat.  Still, the people have been additionally fundamental to make others understand, by seeing their photos, how impressive the building is.

At a certain point, we found ourselves near a small group of foreigners who were talking quietly about the place as if it were one of the few spots in the world where it is possible to perceive cosmic forces which can bring out deep memories and ancient instincts, hidden away in humanity’s history.

It was not easy to leave such a charming place, but much enchantment and amazement (and hundreds of photos) we decided to continue on towards a small church not far from the abbey.  To tell the truth, we were not particularly convinced; but, since a passerby told us that it was a walk of only five or ten minutes, it seemed right to continue there.

The church turned out to be the Eremo (“Hermitage”) di Montesiepi, built in 1185 immediately after the death of San Salgano, above the small hut where the saint had lived the final months of his life.  Even the abbey of San Galgano was built in honor of the saint of whom, to be honest, we know little; and of the little that has been passed down to us, we do not know what is history and what is instead pure fantasy.

Inside the chapel there is a huge stone into which the knight Galgano Guidotti stuck a sword, as a sign that from then on his worldly life was to be transformed into that of a hermit.  A similarity to the story of Arthur and the sword in the stone?  Non quite:  one sword was pulled from the stone, while one has remained in the stone.

The time had come to return home; the dog and cat were surely waiting.  The day had turned out to be truly curious and interesting.  Seeing that Tuscany is also a land of abbeys, convents, and monasteries that are important enough to be discovered, it is very probable that our next (albeit hypothetical) days off will turn out to be fully occupied.

Anneliese Rabl (translation John McAuliffe) x

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In the olive groves of Tuscany

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In Tuscany everything seems to be beautiful.  We Northerners are constantly amazed by the mild climate; rarely is it necessary to turn on the heat before November, and usually by March the temperature allows one to warm in the sun’s rays instead of with GPL, methane, or wood.

It is pleasing to see perfumed citrus, colored orange and yellow and light red, for our palate unusual but exquisite, and also the pale roses, even though not as fragrant as they were during the flowering season.  Here and there a butterfly flutters and sometimes one can see a bumblebee, stiffened in flight through the cold air, but still searching from plant to plant for some nectar to take home.

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What intrigued us almost 10 years ago, when we first came to Tuscany in October, was the soft covering of endless meters of ground with fine nets, often beige colored but sometimes also orange, green, and black.  Assuming that they were for harvesting olives, since they were placed in olive groves under and around the trees, we still could not understand the layout system.  There was a whole world to discover:  sometimes there seemed to be the work of an architect, although the arrangement of the nets seemed to be quite approximate.  Sometimes one could even see nets attached with the help of bamboo sticks, so that the nets did not touch the ground.

We also have olive trees, so sooner or later we would certainly have taken into consideration to harvest the olives for our own oil.  Therefore it seemed logical for us to try to explain the mystery of how the nets were arranged.

In general, as we were told, the nets are placed in order to minimize olive losses.  In fact, in October the olives start to be ripe and even a small wind is enough to make them fall into the net; otherwise they fall on the ground and are lost.  The more carefully the nets are placed, the more likely it is that the owner of the olive grove sells his oil or uses it for a large family and consequently needs it as a basic material for Tuscan excellence.  Each olive counts!  Certainly, sometimes it is simply a result of an owner who is careful and scrupulous.  This category often cuts the grass at least two or three times per year:  in spring, in early summer, and again before the harvest, an impressive feat considering that the olive groves often exceed four or five hectares in size; four or five football fields, in other words……

Then we move to the “Sunday collectors”, which is to say those people who own an olive grove but are not so attached to it.  Those, in short, who put the nets down a bit carelessly, without particular attention to whether or not a few olives are lost.  The grass is usually cut only once.

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Finally there is the category of those who have opted for Bio oil, which means among other things that no herbicides or chemical fertilizer are used and that none of the olives have touched the ground.  For us it is always an enigma how many times the others cut their grass; to us, their grass seems to be a smooth carpet on which weeds dare not show themselves.

This year we decided to jump into this adventure and see if we could bring home our very own extra virgin olive oil.  It is true that we did not mow the grass three times; it is true that we did not lay the nets very artfully but as best we could, seeing as how our olive grove is not level but quite sloped; and we have not used chemical fertilizer or herbicides.

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Our olives did not touch the ground for more than half an hour because, tree after tree, we separated the olives from the leaves and loaded them into containers which, the very same day (not in two or three days as many do), we transported to the olive mill.

The oil seems fantastic to us (all owners say this about their own oil!).  Those who are curious about this world and its products can contact us on:  info@farfalladitoscana.it.

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Anneliese Rabl (translation John McAuliffe) x

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The seasons change, and so does the food: autumn, time for kale

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It is strange, at least for those who were not born in this beautiful country. After the feast of the assumption, that is to say after 15 August, the Italians prepare for autumn and for the return to school; so by the beginning of September, while it is still 35 degrees outside, the clothing of the children is purely autumnal.

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The same thing happens in the kitchen. From the dishes with the perfumes of sun, sea and vacation, one passes directly to dishes requiring longer cooking time, more flavorsome, hotter and richer in calories; thicker, in a word.

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Among the favorite recipes, not only in Italy, there are dishes which contain (or which have added to them) cabbage; we think of minestrone or rolls; of cassoeula milanese or of Alsatian choucroute.

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That cabbage plays an integral part in the life of the population is clear from many things: the German “kolhdampf schieben” can be translated as “to be hungry”; in Italy a “testa di cavolo” (literally “head of cabbage”) is a person who is foolish or helpless; in France to “envoyer quelqu’un planter ses choux” means to send someone to that country.

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Also the great variety of cabbages is remarkable; one can encounter ordinary cabbage, red cabbage, Chinese cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, savoy cabbage, Brussels sprouts, turnip, and so forth.

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These varieties are used in black cabbage gruel and in ribolitta, two typical Tuscan dishes, and instead of black cabbage (which the rest of the world knows as kale), with the difference that in Tuscany the kale has straighter sheafs and is traditionally covered with bubbles.

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According to Tuscan housewives, in order for kale to release all its flavors, it must be soaked in a brine; for now, we will not do this. Instead, I want to share a recipe from Artusi, a writer, gastronome, and literary critic who is prominent in the world of Tuscan cooking. For those who come to visit, tasting a dish based on kale is an absolute must!

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Sliced kale

Some use this for stews. Roast thick slices of bread and rub them with garlic, meanwhile boil the kale in water, remove, and place on the sliced breat, then adding salt, pepper, and oil. This, which in Florence is called “sliced kale”, is certain to inflict penance on a glutton.

Here follows a recipe with corn flour and kale

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Kale gruel (serves 4)

2 bunches of kale (500g each)
1 onion
2 carrots
2 celery stalks
2 tomatoes
4 tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
1 can of beans (borlotti or cannellini)
Water as needed
200g of precooked corn flour (polenta)

Brown the onions, carrots, and celery over low heat for 10 minutes in oil. At the same time wash the kale and cut into fine strips. Add to the pan, together with diced tomatoes. Add salt and pepper. Cover with water and allow to boil for 45 minutes. Add the yellow flour and stir continuously, cooking over low heat until the polenta is fully cooked. Serve hot with a spash of olive oil.

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Anneliese Rabl (translation John McAuliffe) x

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