May news and Agretti recipe

cleaning agretti 2There has not been a recent newsletter because there has been a dearth of news. I have been confined to barracks, with only accompanied trips to various clinics for treatments for my partially torn Achilles tendon. I have graduated from crutches to walking sticks, and a type of padded, elastic sock.. This is known as a “tutor” in Italian. What it is meant to be teaching me is a mystery, but Italians use English words in a strange way. When I first came to Italy I was mystified by after-dinner plans to visit “a night”. The club had disappeared.

All my life I have run around in bare feet, kicking off my shoes as soon as I get home. Now I have been told this is fatal, and that flat shoes are equally bad for the Achilles tendon. It is not fun, and I am getting stir crazy.

After this self-indulgent moaning session I will move on.

The weather is glorious, and I have been lolling around on the terrace catching up on my reading. In preparation for my October Sicily visit I have re-read David Gilmour fascinating life of Giuseppe di Lampedusa, The Last Leopard. It is a fascinating glimpse behind the scenes, and inspired me to watch again the dvd of Viscontis “Il Gattopardo”. Anyone planning a visit to Palermo should watch this before they go.

May is a great month for vegetables because the winter greens linger on, even though the fresh spring vegetables are usually irresistible. I have denied myself the pleasure of visiting the market because the uneven cobbles would be a challenge at the moment, but I phone to talk through whats looking good before I give my order. This is probably as useless as the customers asking the fishmonger if the fish is fresh. What answer do they expect ?

Today I have bought my first agretti of the season. This is also known as “barba di frate” or friars beard, which seems an unkind conjecture. It is a pain to clean, but nowadays it is usually sold in bunches with most of the roots already removed. It cooks in a few minutes. I am giving my favourite, very quick recipe at the end of the newsletter.

A group of three friends have had to cancel their June Sifnos adventure for health problems. Their travel insurance is covering their deposits so I have three places available for 1000 euros instead of 1750. Details on my website. Get in touch if interested.

There is still availability for Sicily in October

For domestic reasons I have postponed the Ciociaria until April 2018

Agretti con uovo in camicia

Crescenza1-739x1024 Uovo agretti

1 bunch agretti, washed and trimmed

1 large, fresh egg

1 T extra virgin olive oil


Garlic, peeled

1 small piece chilli pepper

Cook agretti in boiling, salted water for five minutes. Drain,  reserving some of the water. In a pan heat the oil, add the garlic and chili. Stir in the drained agretti and stir round for just under five minutes. Carefully poach the egg for two minutes in the boiling agretti water. Lift out and serve on a large plate, surrounded by the agretti.


Giorgio Locatelli – Made in Sicily – A Cook book


Several years ago, when I was the Italian food consultant for the UK store, Marks and Spencer, on my visits to London they would take me out to lunch in trending Italian restaurants to get my feedback. I was usually unimpressed, but I still remember the lunch we enjoyed at Zafferano, in Belgravia.I had ordered large ravioli, stuffed with potato and mint, served with an enticing red pepper sauce. The ravioli were so delicious I had to shut my eyes as I savoured them, and although my Italian-trained palette would have preferred a less intrusive dressing, my companions raved about the sauce.

The then relatively unknown Italian chef, Giorgio Locatelli, opened Zafferano in 1995 and it  became an instant success, breaking new ground with its emphasis on top quality, seasonal produce, often sourced from Italy. Giorgio soon earned a Michelin star which he has never lost,  and in 2002 he opened Locanda Locatelli  which became one of  my favourite London haunts when I was missing Rome. This nearly back-fired on me when I was asked by the Italian food programme,Gambero Rosso,  to play the Prosecutor on a TV mock trial of Italian restaurants abroad. They provided film clips to be presented as evidence, and as I was eloquently criticizing over-sauced, over-cooked pasta I suddenly realised they were showing, without knowing where it had been shot, Locanda Locatelli. I had to speedily change course and hail a great restaurant that was the exception to the rule, upholding Italian culinary religion in a heathen country.

Originally from Lombardia, in the north, Locatelli fell in love with Sicily when he visited for the first time in his thirties. He now returns every year with his family and say it has changed the way he cooks. He says cooking should not express the personality of the cook, but rather that of the land and the sea. Sicilian “dishes are not about clever transformations, they are about conducting and expressing the taste of the ingredients to the maximum, in the simplest way.” I always believe a convert to a religion is more fervent than one born to the belief, and Giorgio conveys the essence of Sicily brilliantly. One of his favourite Sicilian restaurants is Vittorio in Porto Palo near Menfi.

I am taking a small group to Sicily in October. We will be visiting many places mentioned in the book and sampling some of the great Sicilian dishes on our travels. We will be based in Siracusa and Palermo.



Special offer for Greek island


Due to last-minute cancellation 3 places available with 20% discount in the enchanting, unspoiled Sifnos.

Greek Island Idyll    Sifnos   17 to 24 June Reduced from 1750 to 1400 € to include accommodation, one main meal a day, lessons and local transport.

Flights should be booked to Athens and we will meet to take a fast boat from Piraeus.


On the island the light is very special and the sea is always present. I stay in Vathi which is a sleepy cluster of houses on the beach to the south of the island. There are 6 tavernas serving traditional Greek food and a charming little Greek Orthodox church, all on the beach. There are only one or two rows of houses and the hills host goats, donkeys and bees. An island bus links Vathi to the small towns of Apollonia and Artemonas, named after the gods, a high Venetian fortress, Kastro, and the lively port, Kamares. One summer, after a morning swim when I was the only person in the sea, I sat enjoying a glass of wine and thinking “et in Arcadia sum”. Arcadia should be shared with the deserving few, so the idea of my Greek island Idyll was born.

Modena, city of fast cars, Unesco sites and balsamic vinegar

Modena is one of Italy’s wealthiest cities, with a rich cultural heritage. It is easily reached from Emilia Romagna’s food Meccas, Bologna and Parma, and its central cathedral, bell tower, Torre della Ghirlandina, and Piazza Grande have been Unesco World Heritage sites since  1997. It was the birthplace of tenor Luciano Pavarotti, and home to the legendary Ferrari, Lamborghini Maserati and Bugatti cars.

The central Mercato Albinelli, with its graceful Liberty-style fountain is an irresistible attraction, even to those who don’t cook, and in the last few years Massimo Bottura’s Osteria Francescana has been declared the world’s top restaurant. It costs a king’s ransom to eat here, and the waiting list runs into months. On top of all this, it’s where the real, traditional Aceto Balsamico originated centuries ago, and where it’s lovingly protected and strictly defended.

Much of the balsamic vinegar used in salad dressing is made in factories with wine vinegar, colouring, caramel and occasionally a thickener like guar gum to imitate traditional aceto balsamico.  Traditional balsamic vinegar is expensive and would not work as a salad dressing. The sweet, thick liquid oozes from the bottle and is used to give a special flavour to the pan juices of a cooked dish. In Modena they say you should be frugal but not miserly, and a few expensive drops can transform a simple piece of grilled or fried meat. A roast chicken becomes sublime when anointed with balsamico as it comes out of the oven. You never cook with aceto balsamico.

How balsamic vinegar is made

Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena starts with the white Trebbiano grape, grown in the hills around Modena, harvested as late as possible to produce maximum sweetness. The must is cooked slowly in an uncovered pan until it has reduced by about two thirds, and then stored in a large wooden cask, usually of oak, known as the madre. Eventually a batteria of casks will be arranged horizontally, in decreasing size, and stored in an area like an attic, exposed to summer heat and winter cold, to encourage evaporation of about 10% every year.

The choice of wood for the casks where the balsamico is aged depends on the Master Vinegar-Maker, but they usually start with oak. A typical order is Oak, Chestnut, Cherry, Ash and Mulberry but other woods can be used, such as Acacia, Walnut and Juniper. The Master Vinegar maker decides when to move the vinegar from cask to cask. There is a constant “topping up” throughout the year but the balsamico to be bottled is only drawn from the last cask. The process for aceto tradizionale must last at least 12 years and use at least 5 different woods.

One of the top panels in the barrel is left open for inspection and if you lean over and breathe the powerful fumes your head starts to swim. When Lucrezia Borgia was married to Alfonso d’Este she used the vinegar fumes to alleviate childbirth pains, and people thought it provided protection from the plague, although it was not until 1747 that it first became known as balsamico. It was regarded as a political tool and gifts were sent to powerful figures like Catherine the great of Russia and  Metternich.

Samples are taken to be judged by official tasters who have had to study for at least 4 years and tasted 40 vinegars every year. A Master Assagiatore has to have studied for 8 years and tasted 80 every year. In Modena the Consorzio samples many traditionally-made vinegars, but only those satisfying their strict standards can be bottled in the small, squat bottles made for specifically under patent in Murano. The consorzio guarantees that balsamico in their special bottles is at least 12 years old. The corks are sealed and covered with ivory foil  The ones marked Extra Vecchio contain balsamico at least 25 years old and they have gold foil. Each bottle is numbered so they can always be checked and traced.

When I first discovered balsamico in the late 80s it was still low key among the general public, but it was a religion in Modena. I remember being taken to lunch while I was doing food research in Modena, and my local host pointed out a man crossing the street, with the words :

“He may have a Henry Moore in his garden but he can’t  have his aceto in the Consorzio bottles.

Gourmet Adventures for 2017

Bologna and nearby Cities –      Full

Some spaces still available for :

Sifnos, Greece  –  June 17 – 24

Sicily –   October 1 – 9

Ciociaria – October 13 –  20


I will not be taking firm bookings until August but please let me know now if you are interested in one or two parts, as places are very limited. Priority will be given to returning visitors.


March News


Since my last newsletter my life has been first, a whirlwind of activity, then secondly, a very boring, immobile existence, stretched out on a couch alla Elizabeth Barrett, with no dynamic Robert Browning in sight. At the beginning of February I flew to India to choose hotels, and set up the programme for next year’s final Indian adventure, moving every two days to try to get the most out of my rushed itinerary. While I was there I signed up for a relaxing Ayuvedic massage, as I do every year, but this time I had an unlucky experience with an obviously untrained masseuse. I should have clambered off the couch after the first few minutes but it is difficult to be commanding when you are only wearing disposable massage thongs! I contented myself with asking her not to touch my hands or vulnerable right foot. She obviously over-compensated on the other foot, and in the morning I was in pain when I tried to walk. I carried on for the last two days, but back in Italy, a scan revealed a lesion in my Achilles tendon. Now I am having daily laser and ultrasound treatments, with strict instructions to use my crutches when I have to move around. Very frustrating.

Spring has come to Ferentino but I have to delegate the gardening, shopping and cleaning, and shut my eyes to the winter damage. Cooking is a problem on crutches, and all the local trattorias seem to have treacherous steps at the entrance. Still I console myself with imagining the weight I must be losing ! Of course balancing on the scales is too demanding.


I am travelling in my imagination as I book the aceito balsamico tasting for May, and I can almost smell the wild oregano drifting down from the hills in Sifnos as I plan pottery visits with Ronia. When I watched the BBC team running from burning stones spewing from Etna I remembered how in times of volcanic activity flights have to be diverted to Palermo. In October we are flying into Catania and out of Palermo so I hope Etna will be taking a rest.

When I am more mobile, after Brexit and other catastrophes, I will write another more ‘newsy’ letter.


Gourmet Adventures for 2017

Bologna and nearby Cities –      Full

Some spaces still available for :

Sifnos, Greece  –  June 17 – 24

Sicily –   October 1 – 9

Ciociaria – October 13 –  20


I will not be taking firm bookings until August but please let me know now if you are interested in one or two parts, as places are very limited. Priority will be given to returning visitors.