August 20, 2014

Blackberry Crumble


I get asked a lot why I live here. Why did I end up in the outskirts of the city, in a so-called dormitory neighborhood populated in large majority by commuters and families to whom the city has little to offer anymore other than a secure, well-paid job.

The short answer is, I don't know. When we first moved here two and a half years ago (gasp!), we had absolutely no clue about what was trendy and hip – nothing did we know about 'where it's at'. All we knew was that we wanted an apartment on our own, that was decent and well-kept, with lots of natural light, a shower rather than a bathtub, and possibly with no carpet. One close to a tube station, and possibly to a decent grocery store. One not too far from were we worked. An apartment with all these features, and that we could afford, too. We eventually viewed this little one bedroom apartment in Wimbledon Park, with three windows in the day area and a view of the roofs all the way to London eye from the huge bathroom window. There was plenty of light for my pictures – which later on I discovered is pretty hard to screen, and to turn moody. So there you have it, the answer to my super-bright pictures: we have no curtains. The apartment was tastefully furnished, and with a lovely flooring and a big table for dinners with friends (four, as we only have four chairs).

I digress, as usual. The long(er) answer is, I don't mind living here. I have my highs and lows about this place, so quiet at night, so dead really. Sometimes, i crave being in the middle of the buzz, being at walking distance from a nice wine bar or a concert. Others, I feel so blessed for coming home to a quiet place where I can find some rest and solace for my achy, tired, overwhelmed brain. And then, there are the blackberries. Perhaps one of my favourite activities to do in late summer, the idea of being able to get out of the door and find blackberries to forage by the bowlful gives me the most childish, pure joy. I go out at dusk, when the park is quiet and you hear the ducks getting ready for the night, and the sun is sinking behind the hill. The air has chilled a bit, and there is no one on the road. I can let my mind wonder, finally, as I pick berries and fill my bowl, connecting with nature, and my thoughts.

July 30, 2014

Summer Fregola

And so, and now, another summer month has passed.

We took holidays at the end of August this year, believing it would have made our summer feel longer, stretching it further into early September. We are going to Sicily for two weeks (!), and I can hardly contain the excitement. In the meantime, though, as we roll out of one working week into another, I live with the uncomfortable feeling that summer is slipping through my fingers – too fast, too soon.

I have been resonating a lot with Molly's thoughts on feeling busy. Doesn't working in the summer feel so very unnatural to you? Don't you feel you are missing out on the best things in life? Picking berries, baking pies, watching clouds, sleeping in the sun, swimming in the ocean and eating lots of grilled fish, to name a few. Days are so long and (mostly) beautiful here finally – skyes are dramatic, the air is fresher and the sun feels like the most amazing miracle – that spending such precious, rare days enclosed in a cabinet makes me sad and pensive. I think of my dad, a teacher, enjoying his summer time off; and to myself, growing up believing that having at least two months vacation time in July and August is a very civilised way to go about things. Adulthood, I don't like you. Shall we make a law about this?

July 14, 2014

The Time of Tomatoes


Friends, we are back from a short trip to Italy to visit my family. Spending some time in the garden with my grandmother, looking at her beautiful tomatoes, made me think of these memories related, you guessed it, to tomatoes. Possibly the strongest flavour and connection I have to where I am from, and to the most beautiful time of the year there: summer.

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On our first year in London, we tried to grow tomatoes. We had just moved from Italy in early March, and settled into our one bedroom apartment with no balcony or yard but lots of natural light and a big table by April.

Short after our move, Jesse declared one night at dinner that no, we didn't have to give up our little dream of a veg and herb patch, and that yes, we could make it work just as well indoor. After all, there was no lack of light for photosynthesis and all that. And so he bought some heirloom seeds from a company in the US, and vases and he treated our seeds to organic dirt and compost. We placed some of the vases with dirt and seeds by the window sill, and some on the portion of the table we didn't use for our meals, the one we used as a desk but that could be sacrificed in the name of tomatoes.

It wasn't the most successful of our experiments. After a cruel selection of the best plants for lack of space, those who stayed grew so tall they almost reached the ceiling. We bought sticks, but the plants were standing in fragile balance, and I was knocking one down every time I ran the vacuum cleaner. Exasperated – from the dirt on the floor, the herds of small bugs flying around the house, and the visible lack of fruits on the plant which would have made all these effort barely worthwhile – I menaced to get rid of them all.

Jesse succeeded in dissuade me from it, and by the end of the summer, we managed to harvest fifteen cherry tomatoes of various colours from 5 plants. They were, as you can imagine, absolutely delicious, and they felt like the most precious thing we could put in our mouth.

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We haven't grown our own tomatoes since. But every time I go home to Italy and get the chance to eat homegrown tomatoes, I certainly get my fill. I love them simply washed and smashed, still warm from the field, on toasted bread rubbed with garlic, scrubbed with coarse sea salt, and moisturised with olive oil. I like them cut and seasoned with garlic, salt, oil and fresh basil and allowed to acquire flavours this way for a while, before adding to panzanella, or becoming the topping for softened friselle. I like them in fresh tomato sauce – cut and peeled, left in a sieve to loose their water for hours before cooking them quickly on the stove with lots of garlic, oil and again, basil. The same ingredients come back over and over, and why wouldn't they when they work so well together?

And then, I have a consuming passion for tomato soups. It started last winter, when I first tasted Jesse's tomato soup to go with English cheddar grilled cheese sandwiches; and it continues now, with countless bowls of gazpacho. The combination of sweet, sun-ripened tomatoes with vinegar and fruity oil is something that touches a soft spot in my taste centre – I surrender to it shamelessly.

I make my gazpacho starting from Elizabeth David's recipe in A Book of Mediterranean Food. The base, says David, is made of chopped tomato, olive oil, and garlic. The other ingredients make for welcome additions, and depend on taste and ingredients on hand. For this recipe, I used tomatoes, bread, cucumber, green pepper, garlic, spring onions, and ice, and blended everything with oil, vinegar and water until smooth. I finished the dish with more oil, and a sprinkle of fresh parsley.

June 21, 2014

72 Hours in Copenhagen


I so love this place, I said. I really think I could live here.

'You can't judge a place by how it shows itself in the summer. You must visit it in the midst of winter to really understand whether or not you would want to live there'.


I have been traveling with different eyes lately. The eyes of someone who doesn't simply visit a place, but who is at the same time evaluating the elements of a life in that place. What does it feel to live here, I was thinking while walking through the neighborhoods of Copenhagen – along its lush parks and pedestrian streets. What does it feel to be able to bike everywhere, not having to take a crowded train to work, and living this lifestyle which seems so laid back, relaxed and human?

We left London on a rainy, misty day at the end of May and landed in a place where the sun didn't seem to ever go away. Days were long and warm, and we were pushed to the edge of our energies, eager to suck it all in, to see it all, to breathe the fresh air of a city where bikes outnumber cars and buses, where the breeze from the harbour clears the sky and allows the sun to shine bright, as high up as I had never seen before.

We have been lucky, they told us. It isn't always like that in Copenhagen, they said. Winters are long, and dark and harsh and demand a great leap of faith – the certitude that daylight will abound once again, sometime soon– to get through them. We were oblivious of all that for a while – everything was too bright and beautiful and warm and so very colourful in comparison to what we had left behind to picture such times would ever come. Only after a couple of days were we brought back to reality during a lunch at The Nordic Food Lab. We were, funnily enough, talking about the weather, praising the glorious days we had been gifted with, when one of the visiting interns said something that, for simple that is was, stuck with me since. 'This is just like any other day in LA'.
These thoughts, see, these glimpses would never even occurred to me if I was simply visiting Copenhagen, if I wasn't rather considering moving there. Would I be able to take it – the dark, the long winters, the cold, the expensive citrus? Would it be much different from London in that aspect? Would I trade a life in a place that is warm and summery and where I would feel like a living human being for most of the year for a life somewhere beautiful, slow-paced, functioning, yet so expensive and just, simply put, so Nordic?
 

The first impression I had of Copenhagen was that it looks a lot like the California you get to know through media – and the fair weather helped to complete the picture. Everybody is blond – I could have easily titled this post '50 shades of blond' – beautiful, tall, fairly fit, and surprisingly enough, lightly tanned. Every young couple seem to have at least one child, who is carried around in a bin-like attachment in the front of bikes. Everybody bikes in this town of over one million, which seems to reduce stress and crankiness, together with pollution, and is definitely facilitated by the presence of bike paths in both directions in every single road. Bikes have priority over cars. There are bike rush hours, they told us, and when it snows bike paths get cleaned before roads and sidewalks. I was in owe in front of such demonstration of civilisation, coming from a country where bike paths are a mirage and take decades to build, and living in another where bikers risk their lives among cars, buses, taxis and enjoy a good deal of fumes while at it. 

The pace of life is, of course, so dramatically different from the hectic rhythm of London - no one seems in a hurry, no one tries to take over you, I have never felt rushed by someone behind me or in someones trajectory. The only similarity I found with London – it must be a common thing among sun-deprived populations – is the eagerness for the outdoors. As soon as the sun is out, everybody is out, hanging out at the park with beer, eating their lunch along the canal, laying on the grass after work or school and enjoying those remaining four hours of sunshine.

June 17, 2014

A Venetian Crema with Almonds to Celebrate Two Years of Italian Table Talk

If I had to pick a sweet I am particularly fond of – and I am not fond of any sweets in particular – I would go for something creamy. Pannacotta, gelato, zabaione. Something where the the airy texture can make up for the sweet punch. 

It must be in my genes. The women in my family have never been great pastry chefs, yet they could always crack a good pudding. My mum's mum, for example, was known for making the best zuppa inglese in town, with layers of chocolate and marsala cream between cookies drunk with alchermès. My mum for her part, although she has never been the most keen baker, managed to pick up her mum's crema-making skills. So, whenever there is an occasion requiring un dolce – something sweet – she would usually skip the baking altogether, and go for what she was well-known for in our family: tiramisù. Such occasions were usually birthdays and the random ferragosto dinner, which, being on 15th August, automatically called for a chilled dessert. 

This is how my brother and I grew up – with tiramisù as a birthday cake, and the rich, palate-coating sweetness of crema al mascarpone mingled with the bitter accents of unsweetened cocoa and coffee; and with the idea of cake being so soft that it could be tackled with a spoon. Year after year, twice a year at least, our fridge has been dominated by the comforting presence of a large glass pan with a dark, powdery top barely able to cover the overflowing pale yellow cream.