On the Hunt for Olive Oil in Puglia

Puglia, in the heel of Italy’s boot, is the largest producer of olive oil in the country. The dry, hot climate is perfect for the groves of olive trees that carpet the landscape all the way down to the shores of the Adriatic.

It was there that we discovered gorgeous century old trees, sculpted by sea breezes through the decades. The teeny fruit was ripening under the blistering August sun creating a gorgeous coiffure atop the twisted trunks.

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“People have been coming here and moving these trees to places like Dubai,” Laura Barnaba tells us. “We were losing our heritage so a law was made to protect them,” she continues. The law, passed in 2007, created a system of labelling and surveillance of the ancient trees and is unique to Puglia and the first in Italy.

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Photo courtesy of Sorelle Barnaba

We’ve come to Barnaba’s family farm where olives have been grown and pressed into oil for many generations. Laura and her sisters took over running the business from her parents and are now bottling the fine oil under their own brand name instead of selling it to large producers. The quest for artisan olive oil is in its infancy in this part of Italy and Sorelle Barnaba are hoping to capitalise on this growing business by giving tours and tastings. This aspect of the business is so new that there are no signs on the road to find the farm; we stumbled around with Google Maps pulling into farmyards and deserted fields, finally finding it through trial and error.

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There isn’t much to see in the middle of August, just the mill and some tanks housed in a large barn; harvesting and pressing won’t happen for several more months. But we get to taste the oil from these historic lands, and it gets our attention. The first sample is of the Soffio oil, a bright green label giving a clue of what’s inside. The oil grabs at the back of the throat with bright, grassy flavor and my companions hack, cough and sputter. It reminds me of fresh-pressed oil, spicy and robust. The next is Pizzico, with mellow and smooth flavors, an all-around oil useful for many purposes. Finally we get to taste Il Secolare, oil pressed from trees that are a century old or more. It’s silky with a depth of flavor belying all the years the trees that grew these olives have been on the Earth. The three oils are pressed from 17,000 trees spread over 110 hectares of land; 1500 of the trees are considered ancient. Sorrelle Barnaba produce 600 tons of olive oil each year.

Laura then takes us to one of the most unusual places on the Barnaba property – an underground stone mill. These mills are present all around Puglia and are places that contain a fascinating history of earlier times. The cave enabled the olives to be kept dry and the oil warm irregardless of the weather outside. The fruit was unloaded directly into the large stone presses through a shoot in the side of the chamber and the residue of waste after pressing was easily absorbed by the limestone floor. Mules pulled the wheels to press the oil and man and beast co-existed underground throughout the harvest.

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Photo courtesy of Sorelle Barnaba

The Barnaba’s cave also has evidence of religious symbolism and there is speculation that worshippers – who had to hide their spirituality from the various invaders of Italy though the centuries – found a safe haven in this space. The family intends to one day make a museum to share with visitors the beauty, spirituality and history found in the chamber.

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We happily packed our bottles of Sorelle Barnaba oil into our suitcases as a reminder of a special time in Italy. With each drop of green gold drizzled on soups and avocado toast or whisked into a dressing for a leafy salad, I’m taken back to the beautiful trees of Puglia.

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Love Letter to Lisbon

Dear Lisbon,

I had no idea that you were such an elegant and sophisticated city. Rife with history, culture and natural beauty, you gave us plenty to explore during a recent weekend.

We were thrilled to discover your culinary gems, such as the Mercado Da Ribeira, an amazing amalgamation of a historical fruit, veggie, fish, meat and cheese market combined with a hip food court. The bounty from the area was eye popping, with gleaming fresh fish, roast suckling pig and even snails trying to escape their net bags.

The food court was created by Timeout Publications and offers everything from sushi to pizza, tartare from a Michelin-starred chef and some of the best Portuguese hams and cured meats to be found anywhere. It was here we were almost brought to tears by warm, luscious pasteis de nada, the country’s infamous custard tarts.

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The National Tile Museum, housed in a 16th century convent, was surprising in its offerings with unbelievably colorful tiles from the 14th century on up as well as a couple of jaw-dropping, gilt encrusted chapels filled with relics and paintings. One of the highlights is a mural of Lisbon done in tiles which shows the city in all its glory before the 1755 earthquake that wiped out large parts of it.

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We loved this detail of another mural that depicts a glamorous chicken being taken to a ball in a colorful carriage. Chickens hold a warm place in the hearts of Lisboetas because

in Lisbon, there is a piri piri  shop on virtually every corner. The inhabitants of this great city love to get their chicken fix and one of the best outposts is in the Campo de Ourique neighborhood.

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Step inside and smell the delicious aromas of birds that have been bathed in a sauce of hot chilies originally brought from Africa. Piri piri sauce is a marinade for chicken as well as a bottled sauce that is ubiquitous here and used to fire up everything from soup to eggs. Every cafe, diner and restaurant makes their own and the flavors and textures vary as much as the people who make up this hilly town.

We happened upon this fantastic chicken place on a walking food tour with Culinary Backstreets. In 6 hours we ate and drank our way around this out-of-the-tourist-fray district, trying traditional cherry liqueur called ginjinha, fish stew, bacalhau (another national dish made from salt cod) that is fried into tasty croquettes, pork vindaloo, cheeses and cured meats all washed down with fabulous (and underrated) red wines from the countryside.

Another reason I fell in love with you, dear Lisbon, is because you are much like my home city of San Francisco. Your hilly streets are also navigated by rickety cable cars,

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you have a scenic waterfront where one can consume red wine purchased from an adorable truck (don’t think SF has one of these yet)

and then used to make a toast to you and your version of the Golden Gate Bridge.

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I’ll be back to visit again, there is still way too much to see and taste to be away too long. Until then, dear Lisbon, keep singing your hip-swinging songs, painting your beautiful tiles and cooking up delicious traditions.

A Second Life for that Loaf

Recently friends were visiting and came back from a day playing tourist with a gift of a lovely, large baguette.

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We didn’t use it that night or the next day and when I pulled it out of the bread box it was hard as a rock. I hate wasting food so started thinking up ways to use it up.

First, I cut a third of it into cubes using a sharp serrated knife then fried some of them with garlic and oil to make crispy croutons for salad or to top a steaming bowl of soup.

 

The rest of the cubes became the base for a savory mushroom and asparagus bread pudding inspired by a recipe from Georgeanne Brennan.

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The rest were whizzed into crumbs in the blender.

Breadcrumbs are extremely versatile and can be kept in the freezer for months. You can just pull out the amount you need then return them for future recipes. Crumbs can be used for binding meatloaf and meatballs, crisped and used on pasta dishes or as a crunchy topping for vegetables or coating for oven-fried chicken or fish. I made baked apricots and cherries with amaretto crumbs for dessert last night with great results; the dish would also be good at breakfast topped with yogurt.

So hang onto that stale loaf and give it a second life in recipes for just about every meal of the day.

BAKED STONE FRUIT WITH CRUMBS

Now that stone fruits are coming into season you can try different varieties to suit your taste.

4 apricots, halved

6 cherries, pitted

4 tablespoons breadcrumbs

1 teaspoon Amaretto

2 tablespoons sugar

1 tablespoon butter, melted

Preheat oven to 400 F/200 C. Arrange the apricots and cherries in a single layer in a small baking dish. Combine the remaining ingredients and sprinkle evenly over the surface of the fruit. Bake in a hot oven for 12-15 minutes until fruit is soft and jammy and crumbs are crisp and golden. Serve warm with ice cream or cold with yogurt.

Yield: 2-3 servings

 

Magic from the Isle of Wight

The first time I strolled through our weekly farmers market in Balham, I was immediately drawn to the beautiful stall from Isle of Wight tomatoes.

All through the dreary London winter, the folks from Isle of Wight would show up each week with their bounty of fresh tomatoes in shades of yellow and red as well as a bevy of products from the farm, such as passata, ketchup, slow roasted tomatoes with spices and organic oak roasted tomatoes.

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When I marvelled at finding fresh tomatoes in London in January, they explained that the Isle of Wight is positioned to get more sun then the mainland of England. The farm is located in the Arreton Valley, an area that has produced tomatoes for quite some time in the rich, loamy soil there. The tomatoes are vine-ripened in large greenhouses and nourished with compost produced on-site from all the spent plants and other growing material. Upwards of 200 varieties are grown throughout the year by both organic and conventional methods and Isle of Wight uses biodynamic principles to curb pests, pollinate the plants and promote natural habitats around the farm.

Lately the stall has had padron peppers, those petite, piquant capsicums popular at Spanish tapas restaurants.

They are dead easy to prepare and lip-smacking good to eat. Simply heat a pan and add a generous splash of really good olive oil. When it’s shimmering, toss in the padrons. Stir them frequently in the hot oil until they blister and get browned then turn out on a platter and serve with salt – I used Hawaiian red salt.

Another inspiring product, the oak smoked tomatoes, featured this week in a bastardised Caprese salad for lunch. Smoked and fresh tomatoes were mixed with chunks of ripe avocado and creamy, fresh mozzarella then showered with fresh basil and splashes of Tuscan olive oil; each bite transported me to Florence in the early summer when tomatoes and basil have just returned from winter break. The smoked tomatoes contributed intense bursts of flavor with a haunting backbeat. Tonight I’m thinking of adding them to a cheesy pasta dish with asparagus but they’d also be great with other starchy ingredients like potatoes or rice or in egg dishes.

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Suffice it to say the products at Isle of Wight Tomato Farm really get my creative juices flowing. And I’ve been nourished in health and spirit by a little taste of summer even when a cold rain is falling outside.

A Week in the Life

London has an incredible diversity of activities to experience and I’ve been out there doing just that. In this past week, I’ve shopped at the fabulous Borough Market,

walked through a gorgeous tribute to India’s use of orchids at Kew Gardens,

and seen how they play ice hockey in England as the Streatham Red Hawks took on the Invicta Dynamos

And after all that running around we still had to eat. A look in the fridge revealed leftover roast chicken and not much more than that. I remembered Lancashire hotpot from the comforting detective show “Hetty Wainthropp Investigates” and came up with this recipe using chicken instead of the traditional lamb. It’s an easy way to use up leftovers for a quick, nourishing supper.

First, sauté onions in olive oil until golden

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Then whisk in some flour to make a roux

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Stir and cook the roux until it is lightly browned then whisk in chicken stock

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Bring to a boil then lower the heat and cook for 5 minutes or so until the mixture coats the back of a spoon. Fold in the chicken and some cooked vegetables and incorporate well.

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Transfer the stew into an oven proof casserole and top with thinly sliced potatoes then brush the potatoes with olive oil or melted butter and pop in the oven.

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Voila! In no time flat a hotpot worthy of Hetty and her crew is ready to enjoy.

Chicken Hotpot a la Hetty Wainthropp

4 tablespoons olive oil, divided

1/2 onion, chopped

2 tablespoons flour

1 1/2 cups chicken stock

salt and pepper

2 cups cooked chicken, cut in bite-sized pieces

2 cups cooked vegetables such as carrots, peas, turnips, zucchini, mushrooms

2 medium potatoes, peeled and thinly sliced

Preheat oven to 350F/160C. Heat 3 tablespoons of oil in a medium saucepan over medium heat then add the onions and sauté until golden and softened. Whisk in the flour until a smooth roux forms and cook for a few minutes then add the chicken stock and whisk rapidly over high heat. Season with salt and pepper and bring to a boil, stirring frequently until mixture thickens and coats the back of a spoon. Remove from heat and fold in chicken and vegetables then transfer to a medium ovenproof casserole dish. Smooth the top then lay the sliced potatoes in a spiral design over the stew. Brush the potatoes with the remaining oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Cook until the stew is bubbling and the potatoes are browned and crusty, about 35-40 minutes.

 

A Classic Use for Leftovers

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If you’re following the local seasonal mantra, then there isn’t a lot of choice here in England in February. Roots, potatoes, onions, cabbage and lots of kale are on the menu, especially for the country’s lauded Sunday roast – a big noontime meal with everything crisped up in a hot oven. The next day frugal cooks take the leftover bits of roasted veggies, mash them together and fry the mass into “bubble and squeak”. Some say the term refers to the sound the cabbage makes as its being fried and some say it refers to the sound your GI system makes after consumption. In any event, on a chilly winter evening a round of bubble and squeak can be quite a comforting dish and it goes rather nicely with salty meats (bacon or ham), poached eggs and early spring vegetables like asparagus.

If you aren’t much for Sunday roasts and don’t have leftovers laying around, you can easily construct bubble and squeak from the ground up.

Slice leeks and sauté with minced garlic until  tender and just beginning to caramelize.

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Boil peeled potatoes with some chunks of peeled turnip (known as swede here) until soft. I purchased this massive specimen at our weekly farmers market in Balham, as well as the leeks, cabbage and potatoes.

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When fork tender, mash it together with some rich mascarpone (you can also use creme fraiche), butter and just enough milk to make it smooth but stiff, as well as plenty of salt and pepper. Stir in the leek mixture and some cooked cabbage.

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Form into thick cakes and chill. The cakes are then fried until browned on each side, perched on crisp tender steamed asparagus and topped with a juicy slice of ham. This dish is really good served with something sweet and fruity, such as Cranberry Apple Pear Relish.

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Maybe not entirely traditional but a California take on a classic, cooking mostly with what is coming out of the fields and farms in England right now.

Bubble and Squeak Cakes with Ham and Asparagus

3 medium potatoes – such as Yukon Gold or King Edward – peeled and quartered

1 medium turnip peeled and quartered

1 leek

olive oil

1 large clove garlic, minced

1/4 head of a small cabbage cut in three pieces

2 tablespoons mascarpone cheese

1 tablespoon butter

1/4 cup milk – or as needed

10 asparagus spears

Applewood smoked ham – either 1 or 2 slices totalling 4 oz or 125 grams

Two poached eggs – optional

Boil the potatoes and turnips together in a medium pot of copiously salted water. Slice the leek in half lengthwise, keeping the root intact, and rinse thoroughly. Make another long lengthwise cut so the leek is cut in quarters horizontally then cut crosswise in 1/4″ pieces. Heat the olive oil in a 10″ frying pan and saute the leek with the garlic until tender and golden. Simmer the cabbage in a small pot of salted water to cover until cooked through; when cool enough to handle, finely chop and set aside.

When the potatoes and turnips are soft, drain and mash them with the mascarpone and butter, adding milk if needed until mixture holds together. Stir in the leeks and cabbage and season with salt and pepper. Form into two 6″X 1/2″ cakes then pop them in the fridge to chill for 30 minutes.

In the meantime, trim the asparagus ends and get them set up in a shallow pan with a lid to steam; have a frying pan at the ready to cook the ham. Take out the cakes and heat up the pan used for sautéing the leeks over medium high heat. Add some butter and once it’s melted add the cakes. At this point get the asparagus steaming until crisp tender and sizzle the ham in a hot pan until golden on each side then keep everything warm. Peek at the underside of the cakes to see if they are deep golden then turn and repeat on the other side.

To serve, divide the asparagus between two plates, top with the bubble and squeak cakes and then the ham. If you want to gild the lily, crown each stack with a poached egg and wolf down before it gets cold.

Serves 2

 

 

Signs of Spring in London

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Since my last post, I picked up stakes and moved from sunny California to London, arriving in mid-October. The city is quite a contrast to my suburban West Coast home with it’s large garden and temperate climes. Here, the constant frigid grayness of January has merged into rainy, chilly February – which had me searching last weekend for signs of spring.

Delicate snow drops are peeking out of just-thawed dirt throughout London’s vacant lots, public parks and gardens. I took this photo at Chelsea Physic Garden last weekend.

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Another sign showed up on the produce shelves at my local Waitrose grocery store. Known as “forced rhubarb”, this typically spring vegetable (that is treated like a fruit) is grown indoors under curious circumstances. Coming from an area known as the rhubarb triangle in Yorkshire, the rhizome is initially started outdoors where it absorbs nutrients from the sun, and is moved indoors after the first frost in November. Once inside the rhubarb shed, it is grown in complete darkness and harvested by candlelight (Image courtesy ChicagoNow) throughout the winter months.

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This treatment creates ruby red, subtly sweet and tender stalks. In 2010 the EU designated the rhubarb triangle a PDO – Protected Designation of Origin status – a recognition bestowed on such lofty products as Stilton for its cheese and Champagne in France.

The cheery crimson sticks make a great compote when cooked up with exotic spices. I used star anise, whole cloves and a cinnamon stick along with orange juice and zest and layered the compote with rich rice pudding in parfait glasses.

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However the mixture would be tasty paired with your morning porridge or yogurt and granola or delicious served alongside sausages, roast pork or duck, turkey and chicken.

Start by cutting the trimmed stalks in 1 inch pieces.

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Then simmer them in a wide saucepan with the sugar, spices and orange until just soft.

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My hope is that this little taste of spring will stay with me until the days get longer, the gray skies clear and London bursts into the blooming, bird singing springtime of my dreams.

Spiced Poached Rhubarb

1 pound rhubarb, washed, trimmed and cut in 1″ pieces

2 whole star anise pods

1 cinnamon stick

2 whole cloves

Juice and zest of 1 large navel orange

6 tablespoons brown, muscovado or coconut sugar

Combine all the ingredients in a wide saucepan and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat so mixture is on a gentle simmer and cook until rhubarb is just-tender, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat and serve warm, room temperature or cold.

Yield: About 1 1/2 cups