We never thought we’d see the day. We’d talked about it forever, but the idea that we might someday bring our Italian olive oil to the U.S. and see it sold by our favorite stores and restaurants lived somewhere on the extreme edge of our day-to-day reality. In the meantime, we went to work, raised our children and visited our olive grove in the southern Italian region of Puglia just often enough to revive the fantasy for another year. Read more
Just about a year ago, we left our home, our stuff and our country to live in Italy and launch a new business. At the time, we didn’t know where it would end. What would the business look like? How would we navigate the commercial landscape in another culture? Would we get tired of Italy? We were starting from scratch: no business model, no sources, no branding and no internet. Had we totally lost our minds? Read more
One of the pleasures of sinking into the rhythm of a place involves meeting new people while deepening ties to old friends. It’s not so easily done as an itinerant visitor. You need to engage in the business of everyday life. So we go to the market, walk through town in the early evening during the passeggiata, visit the hardware store and cultivate friendships. When we were invited to a party at a friend’s house last weekend, we were pretty happy about it because it offered confirmation that we are starting to look like part of the landscape.
We knew the evening would involve great music—our friend plays in a well-known traditional music group from Puglia and has another band of his own, Foré. We also knew that there would be an Italian version of potluck, which is always intriguing in another culture. Initial consternation: what to bring? Food is really one of the most fundamentally important topics in Italy, a subject on which everyone, at every age, is a learned authority. And since potluck in the United States is usually such a disaster of mismatched dishes, we expected great things in Italy. Surely Italians have mastered the art of the gracious group meal where participants club together to pull off a stunning, crowd-sourced feast.
After an initial bout of anxiety, I settled on dessert, which is not my usual piatto forte (strong suit). Our host is lactose intolerant but loves sweets, so I happened upon a chocolate olive oil cake from Nigella Lawson made with ground almonds, bitter chocolate and olive oil that seemed perfect. Then I added an antipasto—grilled eggplant with a tonnato sauce—a summer dish more typically served with thinly sliced veal breast. This, too, is lactose-free and practically bursting with flavor and texture. I’ll share that recipe in a subsequent post.
The cake couldn’t be easier or more versatile, so you might want to add it to your permanent repertoire, particularly if you’re cooking for gluten and lactose intolerant guests. It can be served as it is with a dusting of powdered sugar or dressed up with a berry coulis. Throw caution to the wind by making a salted caramel sauce and crowning everything with whipped cream or consider serving it in a puddle of crème anglaise if dietary restrictions aren’t an issue. It’s an incredibly forgiving cake, too, so it’s perfect for a beginning baker.
So how did it go at the Italian potluck? Lots and lots of focaccia of all kinds, which I have come to understand is the go-to item for just about any event in Puglia. It comes in all varieties from with toppings ranging from simple caramelized onions and olives to artichoke, potatoes and asparagus. But beyond focaccia, the offerings were a little less inspired and surprisingly meager. This group clearly came to dance, not eat. The grilled eggplant was inhaled in about ten minutes, the cake in five. But none of that mattered because the music and the company were absolutely brilliant. Next time I’ll bring more food and be a little less intimidated about what I choose to make. Like parties everywhere, the alchemy of great company in a beautiful setting on a moon-filled night make everything else superfluous.
Nigella Lawson’s Chocolate Olive Oil Cake
150 ml (slightly under 2/3 cup) extra virgin olive oil (plus more for greasing the pan)
50 grams (2 oz.) good-quality cocoa powder (sifted)
125 ml (1/2 cup) boiling water
2 teaspoons best vanilla extract
150 grams (1/3 lb.) ground almonds
½ teaspoon baking soda
1 pinch of salt
200 ( 7 1/2 oz.) grams sugar
3 large eggs
Preheat your oven to 325 degrees. Grease a 9-inch springform pan with a little oil and line the base with baking parchment cut to fit.
Measure and sift the cocoa powder into a bowl and whisk in the boiling water until you have a smooth, chocolaty, still runny (but only just) paste. Whisk in the vanilla extract, then set aside to cool a little.
If you grind your own almonds, keep their skins on and grind them in the blender or the food processor. My anemic little blender does a fine job of this, but it’s still wise to pick through the ground almonds for any interloping big pieces or, worse, the odd bit of shell. If you must, you can grind skinned almonds, but why?
In another small bowl, combine the ground almonds with the bicarbonate of soda and pinch of salt.
Put the sugar, extra virgin olive oil and eggs into the bowl of a freestanding mixer with the paddle attachment and beat together vigorously for about 3 minutes until you have a pale-primrose, aerated and thickened cream. I went old school because our only nod to modernity in our Italian kitchen is a basic blender (oh, and that amazing Saeco espresso machine that grinds the coffee beans, steams milk and just about serves it all to you in a sweet little espresso cup that my husband loves more than life itself).
Turn the speed down a little and pour in the cocoa mixture, beating as you go, and when all is scraped in you can slowly tip in the ground almond mixture.
Scrape down, and stir a little with a spatula, then pour this dark, liquid batter into the prepared springform pan. Bake for 40-45 minutes or until the sides are set and the very center, on top, still looks slightly damp. A cake tester should come up mainly clean but with a few sticky chocolate crumbs clinging to it. With this cake, underdone is probably a better bet than over done.
Let it cool for 10 minutes on a wire rack, still in its tin, and then ease the sides of the cake with a small metal spatula and spring it out of the tin. Leave to cool completely or eat while still warm.
Note: As with all baking endeavors, a simple kitchen scale is your friend. Invest in one to ensure perfect results. It doesn’t have to be a fancy digital one; mine is pretty old school but it works for me.
While we wait for Pascarosa Organic Extra Virgin Olive Oil to be blessed by the FDA at the Port of Portland, we are busy cooking up something new for the fall. Maybe we’ve been inspired by the Giro d’Italia, the epic bicycle stage race now underway just next door to us in Matera, then Mola di Bari tomorrow. And so many friends and friends of friends have gotten in touch lately, wanting to know more about Puglia and its amazing coastline, cuisine and gioia di vivere (joy of living) that we have started putting together plans for some tours during the golden days of September, October and early November here. But we need your help to design the best experience possible, so here’s where you come in.
Will you take a minute to check out this survey and tell us what you think? Here’s what we’re planning: three tours, focusing on three different aspects of life here, for one week each. The first is a culinary tour that offers an up-close, very much behind the scenes look at la cucina Pugliese (Puglian cooking). We’ll participate in hands-on cooking classes, olive oil tasting and evaluation, wine tasting featuring Puglia’s world-class varietals and obscure blends now experiencing international success and walking tours of the centri storici (historic centers) of some of the most charming towns and villages you’ve ever seen. This trip will take place in mid-September, 2013 and in the later spring of 2014.
The second, an olive harvest tour, provides an opportunity to participate in the olive harvest, bringing olives to the olive mill and tasting the first organic extra virgin olive oil as it drips off the press. This trip includes hands-on cooking classes focused on the use of extra virgin olive oil in every course from antipasto to dessert, visits to historic and modern olive mills, a workshop on the sensory evaluation of olive oil and visits to Valle d’Itria towns steeped in olive oil tradition. This trip will take place during the very beginning of the olive season, around the first week of November 2013.
The third tour is a biking tour of the incredibly Valle d’Itria countryside. From the Adriatic to the Ionian coasts—and all the hills and valleys in between—guests will have the chance to join the local bicycle club on their weekly rides. There will be a variety of routes available to accommodate all rider levels as well as activities for non-rider partners like hands-on cooking classes, visits to artisan cheese and pasta workshops and more. This trip will take place in mid-September and in the later spring of 2014.
More detail about the trips can be found on our Pascarosa website, which will be active any day now . . . really! But as we shape the tours and refine our pricing, your input is absolutely invaluable in creating experiences that reflect your interests.
If you can take a minute to complete this survey, we can zero in on the details that will make these Pugliese sojourns memorable. All of the tours we’re planning include experiences that are not generally available to the public. Over 17 years in Puglia have given us the chance to develop deep friendships with farmers, food artisans and vintners who will share their knowledge and their home with our guests. We speak Italian fluently, so we’ll smooth the way as our guests develop their own relationships with the people of the Valle d’Itria. We’ll also take care of all the arrangements—from five star accommodations to comfortable transportation between activities.
So thanks for your willingness to share your thoughts with us. And as a way of thanking you, we’ll give you a 10% discount on the cost of any tour you might decide to join eventually if you complete our survey by June 1, 2013. We’d love to see you here and hope to capture your imagination as an inaugural participant.
As is so often the case here, we started the day with a fairly well defined plan and finished it in a completely different way. The original program involved the completion of a series of business tasks along with the extra work of getting ready to leave the country, mindfully ticking things off lists. But we went for a rambling bike ride instead, ending up in a funny little bar in the country to wait out a mid-morning rainstorm. While we were out there, we noticed a handwritten sign advertising baccalà and panzerotti fritti on offer that evening, so we made plans to come back later for dinner. Read more
It’s May Day around the world, but in Italy, we’re celebrating the Festa del Lavoro or Labor Day. Following close on the heels of last week’s Liberation Day holiday, our town’s residents are all outside soaking up the sun and eating gelato. If there’s any work to be done, it’s a single-minded focus on the start of summer tanning. Read more
One winter’s day years ago when we lived with our children in the Italian region of Umbria, we were loading up our little car for a road trip to Venice. We told our Umbrian neighbor excitedly about our plans. She asked, “Why are you going to Venice?” We didn’t know how to answer. “Ummm . . . to see it? We hear it’s beautiful.” Her response? “But Umbria is beautiful.” Indeed it is, then as now. Read more
The national conversation about healthy food in the United States seems to be heating up lately, which may be a case of too little, too late. As we see it from half a world away, Americans are waking up to the insidious infiltration of toxicity in the food supply. Yet the horse has clearly left the barn some time ago and we’re all still debating about whether or not we should close the barn door. It’s possible that collective outrage will move decision makers to action, albeit belatedly, but there are so many national distractions that nutrition and the future of food often seem like abstract concepts. Read more
Puglia is a thirsty place. Its few rivers are torrential, found only on the vast tavoliere plain at the foot of the Gargano promontory, a rocky spur that juts out into the Adriatic in the northernmost part of the region. Everywhere else, rainwater permeates the Pugliese limestone bedrock to form underground watercourses that resurface near the coast. Since the region is blessed with more than 300 sunny days a year and as many as 14 hours of daylight during the summer, water accessibility has always been an issue. Read more