Sifnos, island of cooks and potters.

We are just home from our 2018 Greek Adventure in Sifnos.

Over the years I had enjoyed many family holidays in Sifnos, at sleepy Vathi where the road stops behind the beach, and the small church and tavernas can only be accessed by sea, or a trudge along the sand.One year, irritated by a work companion who lamented the absence of steaks and hamburgers, I sat alone at Manolis,  enjoying once more Margarita’s delicious filo pie, tsasiki and saganaki, and reflected it was more fun to travel with my cooking school students. After a few glasses of local white wine my mind became clear, and my Greek Idyll was born.

I took small groups to Vathi where we swam, relaxed and cooked for a few hours most days in the local tavernas. We eventually moved on to Symi, in the Dodecanese, where we grew lazier and the lure of the sea became more compelling. This year we returned to Sifnos where we received a warm welcome, tinged with surprise that we wanted to eat, not cook, every day. We took rooms in Pensione Areti, had breakfast every morning with Flora at Grigoris and ate and cooked at Manolis taverna with Stelios and Margarita. They now have a wine list so I could indulge my love for Assyrtiko from Santorini.

We had two outstanding fish meals in Faros at Limanaki where we enjoyed the Sauvignon Blanc from Rhodes and the delicate stuffed vine leaves and fish croquettes. Flora very kindly lifted our fish off the bone so that we did not massacre it. We drove to the north of the island to Cheronissos where we had Nikos  make fish soup with freshly-caught scorfano (rascasse) at Taverna Ammondia.

Poached fish Greek style

Bring water, 2 T olive oil to boil. Add one whole peeled onion, 4 peeled poatatoes, 2 carrots chopped into 4cm lengths and 2 scraped celery sticks, halved, bay leaf, parsley, salt and pepper. Cook for 20 minutes then place cleaned, whole fish on top with a little lemon juice. When ready remove fish and lift off bone. Serve surrounded by vegetables. To make the soup:

Beat together the eggs and lemon juice. Add a ladle of the fish liquid. Then on a low heat stir this mixture into the rest of the extra liquid. Do not let it boil. This is called an avgolemono sauce

My October trip to Nardo, in Puglia, is looking good, and for 2019 I am thinking of returning to Greece in June, Morocco’s Imperial Cities in March, and Palermo and western Sicily in the autumn. I need to decide whether to repeat Bologna,Modena and Parma or Budapest in September.

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Salento – southern Puglia

When I first started taking people to Puglia in the Nineties it was relatively unknown outside Italy. Local people would stop to stare at my motley group when we visited the food market in Monopoli, and very little English was spoken. In July and August northern Italians would drive south for their summer holidays but in September local life returned to normal. Over the years international tourists have discovered the region, and today Puglia is well established as a year-long holiday destination. Polignano, Ostuni and Alberobello are inundated with visitors, and when I visited Monopoli in October last year every other place seemed to be serving some form of food and drink.

The Salento peninsula in the south still has hidden pockets to delight the discerning  traveller, and just after Easter I took the train to Lecce to spend some time with my family in small, unspoiled Nardo.

I am taking a small group there in October so we had a good excuse to explore and eat out. We had a couple of lunches at L’Inferno, which gets its name from the blazing ceramic furnaces that used to make the small alleys hellishly hot. Happily those days are long-gone and we enjoyed the gentle spring sunshine while we drank the local Rose with the delicious fritti antipasto.

I feasted on the delicious red shrimp from Gallipoli when we had a lunch on the terrace at Art Nouveau in Santa Maria al Bagno, and although I had planned to visit the Museum della Memoria e dell’ Accoglienza time ran out, and I will have to leave it for next visit. Santa Maria.

Puglia  1-8 October 2018

Puglia is one of the most interesting regions in Italy, and its remote position in the ‘heel’ has helped to preserve its secrets.  Ruined Saracen towers line the coast – remains of an early-warning system against sixteenth-century marauding pirates, and the large, local farmhouses used to hide women, animals and harvested crops behind strong fortifications. This was part of Magna Grecia and the great secular olive trees dominate the landscape, while the sea is ever-present.

The fertile land and accessible coast line attracted foreign invasions and Puglia over the centuries was ruled by Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Normans and Spanish. Each left their traces in the buildings and fortifications, and today the local people can be seen as descendants of this rich history.

This year we will be based in Salento in southern Puglia. We will stay in Nardo to enjoy the lovely Baroque buildings, preserved from tourist development. We will spend time in near-by Lecce, including a food tour in the local shops and market, and visit various small towns to cook and eat. We will explore historical Otranto with its picturesque seafront Promenade, and enjoy the sea and its bounty at Gallipoli. We will visit undiscovered Oria, and shop for pottery and lovely table ware in Grottaglie.

The price of 2750 euros includes local private transport, accommodation and breakfast, one main meal a day, 2 cooking lessons, wine tasting, olive oil tasting and local experts. Guests should fly in to Brindisi.

 

The first day of springp

Today is the official beginning of spring, Palm Sunday and Greek Independence Day. It seems an auspicious moment to return to my blog and newsletter after a silence of nearly a year. A ruptured Achilles tendon, misdiagnosed in Italy, and subsequent poor medical care, led to several months in a wheelchair, following a successful operation in London with the renowned Mr. Klinke. At one point he looked at me sadly, and asked plaintively “Why do you live in that country ?” I replied that I had written several books answering that question, and my love for Italy was not diminished by something that could have happened anywhere. This is true, but I found the need to rely on others while I was non weight-bearing very frustrating, and I felt diminished. It was difficult to cook in my normal kitchen and I hated not being able to choose my own shopping. I usually love the quiet, peaceful life in Ferentino when I come home from exciting travels, but the appeal diminished after three consecutive months of what seemed like house-arrest.

However In February I escaped to enjoy my Indian adventure, with the very necessary and valuable assistance of my grandson Max Edwards.

It was the turning point, and I returned home to begin my characteristic planning and plotting.

Sifnos

In 2018 I am going to return to two of my favourite destinations – the Greek island of Sifnos in June and the Salento, in southern Puglia in October. I have just updated my web pages and it is all systems go !

After Easter I will write about the enchanting little Pugliese town of Nardò and start to send recipes I have not cooked with difficulty from a wheel-chair.

Nardò

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.

http://www.italiangourmet.com/cookingschoolinsinfos.php

There is still availability for Sicily in October

http://www.italiangourmet.com/cooking_school_in_sicily.php

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

Salt

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.

http://www.italiangourmet.com/cooking_school_in_sicily.php