We drove up and up and up. The roads became a succession of hairpin turns so close together that they filled the GPS screen with the traversing green lines. Spring rain turned to hard balls of hail. The medieval town of Sortelha, stone buildings low to the ground, blended in with the giant landscaping boulders.
All the while, we are listening to The High Mountains of Portugal, by Yann Martel. Tomas, the protagonist, is struggling to coax one of the first cars in Portugal up these mountains to recover a unique religious relic he needs to find. But Tomas is really working through his thoughts of the three people he loved most in the world: his son, the mother of his son, and his father, all lost in one week to diphtheria. He thinks that “love is a house with many rooms, this room to feed the love, this one to entertain it, this one to clean it, this one to dress it, this one to allow it to rest, and each of these rooms can also just as well be the room for laughing or the room for listening or the room for telling one’s secrets or the room for sulking or the room for apologizing or the room for intimate togetherness, and, of course, there are the rooms for new members of the household. Love is a house in which the plumbing brings bubbly new emotions every morning, and sewers flush out disputes, and bright windows open up to admit the fresh air of renewed goodwill. Love is a house with an unshakable foundation and an indestructible roof.” (Martel, 2015)
This metaphor is meaningful for all of the love relationships I have in my life, but none more than my 33 year long marriage. Every day, we explore the rooms of this big, old house, shifting spaces as our moods or necessity urges us. I never get tired of it, honestly never. Every day has a fresh energy that intrigues me.
After exploring the icy cobble-stoned alleys of Sortelha, we found a local country restaurant and warmed up with a dish of fluffy potatoes and bacalhou with a side dish of braised lamb. The potato dish incorporated turmeric and cardamom, reminiscent of Indian spices, but then that makes sense given the fierce way in which the Portuguese engaged in the spice trade. All of these factors are part of figuring out what Portuguese cuisine means.
In 1988, Anne and her Polish husband, along with her inlaws, bought a broken down manor-house in Northwest Poland. Over a decade, they renovated the house, along with the grounds and gardens, part of which was a large greenhouse. Deer, wild boar, and geese can be hunted on the property and many types of fish are caught or farmed locally. They preserve what they grow in the harvest season, in the traditional ways, and use what they have in the lean months in masterful ways.
I have been inspired and a little haunted by this Polish way of eating. I was in Poland last winter and I still carry an unshakable sadness for one of the most tragic places I’ve ever been right next to a curiosity to more deeply know one of the quaintest and most beautiful places.
I was cooking this afternoon. I needed four onions, but I only had two. Rifling through the refrigerator, I found a bundle of leeks that had been stored for a couple of weeks. They hadn’t yet been cleaned so they were still dirt caked and were also beginning to yellow on the outer layers. A more finicky me would not have bothered with them and would have composted the entire bunch. The compost can be a great rationalization sometimes when you just don’t want to bother with produce that will take a little work. But, I needed the onions, now. The produce shops were already closed for their afternoon siesta and I needed my dish to simmer in the meantime. This is where the country cook comes through. I washed and trimmed the leeks, finding plenty of good onion left to use and then slow-cooked them in a braise that was delicious. I think that many of these old country recipes began from meats, vegetables, and fruit preserved using methods that were possible given the climate and technology of the time to provide foods of interest and variety in the bleak months, but since then, generations of cooks have refined the techniques until they have become exquisite dishes in their own rights. They have evolved from necessity to art.
I became a little obsessed with the idea of cooking a Polish feast and I thought about it and planned it for weeks. The atmosphere of the meal was simple with lots of candlelight, rough linens, and pottery, and the menu was entirely Polish. Here is what we had:
Blini with Smoked Salmon and Caviar
Barszcz or Borscht (the Russian name)
Potato and Ricotta, with Fresh Peas, and Bacon
Sauerkraut and Wild Mushroom
Braised Pork Shoulder with Sour Cherries
Brown Sugar Pavlova with Fresh Strawberries and Creme Fraiche
Here are a few photos.
Cooking a disciplined dinner like this is really a massive laboratory exercise, especially when you are cooking recipes that are all new to you. I learned many things.
1. Even when you have stuffed the borscht stockpot, the massive one made for industrial kitchens, with beef on the bone, many, many onions, leeks, celery, beets, carrots, porcini mushrooms, and garlic, simmered and simmered, and then reduced the final consume, it can still be a bit thin on body. It wasn’t all that I expected, in the end, and I will keep trying to find “my recipe” that makes the borscht I am tasting in my head.
2. After two complete pre-party pierogi run-through batches, I still prefer the peirogi dough recipe I referenced last summer when we were making crab peirogis. The addition of sour cream or creme fraiche to the dough not only gives it a tender bite, but also makes the dough taste like more than flour. Following is the abbreviated version.
Blend all ingredients and 1 cup flour in mixer with a dough hook. Gradually add remaining flour, 1/4 cup at a time, until dough pulls away from the bowl and is not too sticky to work with. Beat dough a few minutes more, then let rest for 5 minutes before beginning to roll.
3. If you find, like some Polish country cooks do, that moths have hatched an entire colony in your precious stash of dried sour cherries, cranberries work just as well.
4. Not many people could tell you what Polish food is, but when they taste it, they love it.
Before I leave my Tuscan state of mind, I want to capture a recipe. This is simple and that’s partly why I love it. Last night, Nadia, the owner of the farm, finally let me join her in the kitchen. She offers dinner to the guests about every other night and this was to be an off night, but she was planning to make a little dinner for the wine-bottling crew and offered to feed us as well. We made a basic tomato sauce from two of the 500 jars of tomatoes they put away each summer. Tomato puree, a clove or two of whole garlic, and a sprinkling of salt were all we used.
While that sauce was simmering and the penne was boiling, Nadia whipped up some coconut biscuits. This is a recipe she knows by heart. She began by propping a hand mixer in a bowl in the sink to whip one egg. The rest of the recipe she measured, using her metric scale. To the egg, she added 85 g. (6 Tbsp.) of sugar and beat until light yellow. Then, she mixed in 85 grams (6 Tbsp.) of unsweetened, shredded coconut and finally, 20 grams (1 1/2 Tbsp.) of flour. She simply scooped this out of the bowl in 1 tablespoon scoops, rolled them in her hand and placed them on a baking sheet. This recipe makes 12-14 biscuits. She put them in a 140 degree C. (300 F) oven and while they were baking, melted 100 g. (3.5 oz) of dark chocolate in a double boiler. When the cookies were slightly brown (check after 10 minutes) she removed them from the oven and cooled them by putting them on the terrace. Finally, she half-dipped each cookie in the chocolate and cooled again.
This is a recipe I want to pull out for one of those meals when we have company or family with us. Maybe we’ve had a busy day and we are tired, but I still want to prepare a great dinner with a sweet treat at the end. This was the way last night was. It was a big day for Nadia and Renato, getting the bottling in-process. Renato was poetic at dinner about the roller coaster ride a wine maker’s emotions go through in the production of a vintage. We called this bottle ‘the baby’ and shared the first bottled glasses with the vintner. It was an honor to be in that moment.
This is a PS for me. I want to remember to make a cracker-thin crusted pizza with blue cheese and radicchio when I can and I want to keep that idea, somewhere.
Have you ever considered how the picturesque, little vineyards you notice along country roads get their small harvest wines into bottles? As with many elements of the wine-maker’s process, I hadn’t. I guess I thought they hand-bottled it in a garden shed, using a funnel and a manual corking machine. Maybe that’s how it used to happen, but these days, when the wine is sold globally and the liability for selling a product with any kind of contamination is so great, the wine must be preserved perfectly. For vineyards that produce less that 1,000,000 bottles per year, at least in Italy, a custom bottling company comes to the farm and sets up a mobile factory on-site.
Today, it is bottling time at the Marcciano estate for the 2011 vintage. We waited and waited for ‘the truck’ to show up and when it did, it looked like the carnival was coming to town. A massive 18-wheeled rig somehow squeezed down the twisting, dirt road to the farm and began to set up what looked like the Tom Thumb Doughnut stand. Tacky county fair comparisons ended there, though, as the team of experienced engineers set up their mobile factory and began the routine of calibrating the machines to bottle this production. They provide their own energy, through generators, as the voltage requirements would overwhelm what is available at most ancient estates.
The farmer must have everything on hand which means pallets of bottles, boxes, labels, and corks printed with their logo.
It all has to be set up and ready to go because once the system gets into full operation, it bottles something like 20-30 per minute and they have to be ready to box and store them on the other end.
It wasn’t long before bottles turned into cases which were stacked on pallets to be shipped. The first 2,000 bottles are already sold to an American importer and Renato, the owner, has so much riding on this. This bottling represents the end of an idea he said. Once he successfully captures it, he then has to sell it, distribute it, and then wait for the public’s response to his creation. All of this while those vines are bursting with the potential for next year’s growth.
The Italian style of eating sweets for breakfast is a little challenging for me. I need to have protein for breakfast: eggs, cheese, nuts, something of that nature. If I start my day with a lot of fluffy carbs, I’m starving and possibly in tears in about an hour.
Every morning we join the other guests in the cozy kitchen at our farm. Nadia, the owner, and Maggie, an assistant, are often folding the line-dried laundry from the day before. It creates such a homey atmosphere.
In the kitchen is an assortment of freshly baked goods. There will be a warm cake and one or two varieties of croissants along with yogurt, fresh fruit and cereal. I zero in on yogurt and fresh fruit and sample just a little of the baked goods. The morning we had Buckwheat Cake, however, I felt like I was eating something supportive. This is a typical Northern Italian recipe called Torta Di Grano Saraceno. Even though it contains a heavier flour and ground almonds, the cake has a light crumb. Maggie cut her cake in half and filled it with raspberry preserves.
It is perfect with a cappuccino, but in case you don’t know this, it is considered gross to have milk in your coffee past noon in Italy so cappuccinos and lattes are only for morning.
1 cup whole almonds, blanched or natural ( 6oz/175g)
1 ½ cups buckwheat flour ( 200g)
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon cinnamon
1 large lemon, zested
2 teaspoons baking powder
¾ cup unsalted butter, at room temperature ( 6oz/175g)
1 ½ cups sugar, divided ( 300g)
¾ cup milk ( 180ml)
4 eggs, at room temperature, separated
Preheat the oven to 350F/175°C Spread the almonds on a baking sheet and toast until golden and fragrant, about 10-12 minutes. Cool completely.
Grease a 9-inch/23cm springform pan and set aside. In a food processor or clean coffee grinder, grind the almonds as finely as possible with 1/4 cup (50g) of the sugar. In a medium bowl, stir together the ground almonds, buckwheat flour, salt, cinnamon, lemon zest and baking powder.
In another bowl, beat the butter and 1 cup (200g) of the sugar until fluffy. Add the egg yolks one at a time, beating well after each addition. Beat in the dry mixture alternately with the milk until everything is well combined.
In a mixing bowl, whip the egg whites with the remaining 1/4 cup (50g) sugar until they form stiff, glossy peaks. Stir one-quarter of the whites into the cake batter to lighten it, then gently fold in the rest. Scrape the batter into the greased pan, smoothing the top.
Bake the cake in the preheated oven for 45-55 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, covering the top loosely with foil if it begins to darken too quickly. Cool the cake for ten minutes on a rack, then carefully remove the outer ring and cool completely. Cut the cake in half, horizontally, and spread with preferred jam. Dust with powdered sugar before serving..
Many, many years ago, I used to live in a climate of four distinct seasons. In that world, March was a month of lush restraint. The bare-rooted essence of trees and shrubs was still evident, their knotted branches straining with the thrust of growth waiting just below their stems and bark. The first bulbs pushed through the cold, snow-melt damp soil beginning the pageant that would last until the following October.
I have been away from so many of these plants for so many years that I can’t always remember how vibrantly they appear in the pre-equinox landscape. For a couple of springs, I got to go home to my house on Lummi Island. I have only seen it twice in spring in the 10 years I have owned it. Would you believe it if I told you that about an acre of the pasture is covered with naturalized, yellow daffodils in late March and early April? My neighbor also raises sheep and the newly birthed lambs are strong enough on their legs, by this time, that they can spring straight up in the air when they frolic in the ocean-side air. Today reminded me of those country images.
We had a GPS scavenger hunt. Our hosts gave us some town names, intentionally sequenced to keep us off the interstate highway. In our tiny car, not the Fiat pictured, we motored up and over knoll after knoll. The land is used is such a different way to the farmland I am familiar with. The estate is built on the top of the hill and the surrounding hillside and valleys are completely planned and planted. Some properties look completely denuded, still. Some are beginning to show a shadow of green and some are already vibrantly green.
Nothing grows without permission on these intensively controlled farms. Grape vines, olives trees, fruit trees are all pruned, and clipped, and trained to expend their energy only on the productive side of their natures and not a whip on self-indulgent growth.
These photos are all selected to evoke the essence of green, and almost growth, and sheep in the form of pecorino: sheep cheese.
It’s Spring Vacation. Yesterday morning, Allan and I caught the 6:00 AM flight from Tunis to Rome, which takes exactly one hour, rented a car and drove to Tuscany. We are staying for a week at the Agritourismo Marciano, a farm stay just outside the city walls of Siena. So far, it is exactly what we wanted: a real farm, rustic but tasteful, organic, clean. It’s all of that.
They have a particular thing about the laundry here which is all fresh and bright from air drying. Well-done laundry is important to me and gives me a clear message about the deep levels of intentionality this establishment has. The cat particularly liked it, too. I felt like him last night tucked into my clean, crisp sheets.
This was the kitchen this morning when we came in to share breakfast at the long farm table with the other guests. It’s cozy, here.
Due to limited internet access, my husband wasn’t able to check his email this morning so he read a guidebook instead. When we got into the car to go into Siena for the day, he had everything planned, including a great little surprise place for lunch. I find that incredibly romantic.
We so passionately want to find the great little places to have a bite to eat and do not want to be herded along tourist trails from one oversized meal to another. He read about Antica Pizzicheria al Palazzo della Chigiana which is probably locally known as Antonio’s. It is a tiny meat and cheese shop that is legendary with the locals. A line starts to form near noon and is soon out the door. Allan read that you could ask them to assemble a platter to eat on the spot and if you bought a bottle of wine, they would lend you glasses.
They aren’t actually a restaurant, but they can prop you up with your delicatessan treasures on a wine cask in a corner and there you can spend an indulgent 1/2 hour groaning with each bite and licking your fingers. Antonio was really touchy about taking pictures. He had several posted signs forbidding it and tragically, you never saw a more atmospheric place in your life; it’s begging to have its picture taken. I sort of begged him a little and he grudgingly allowed me to inconspicuously take a few so I kept it really brief. Here are just some house-canned sauces and artichokes. I love the hand-drawn labels.
Here is what was on that plate: five varieties of pecorino, which is the Italian name for cheese made from sheep’s milk and then cured meats that ranged from wild boar to farm-raised, air-dried pork. Notice the condiments that brought it together and that bread had chunks of salty meat and chunks of cheese.
This meal was a great find and it set a tone for the kind of food we want to source out the rest of the week. Take out your Siena Brown color-crayon and color along with us.