Sant’Erasmo. Venice’s Garden

Sant’Erasmo. Venice’s Garden

 

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These islanders are proud of their water entrance which is always a priority for Venetians however little used.

My first day back in Venice and I am on a day trip out into the Lagoon. I change boat at Treporti where my feet briefly touch the mainland, albeit an outpost of Italy which is still clearly Venice. A brioche and a cappuccino in the ten minutes waiting for the next boat is breakfast and an exquisite reminder of the sweet tooth of the early morning Venetian. On the number 13 boat I have only a small German family and the boatman for company. Like me they are going to explore Sant’Erasmo. I know this because this is the only place this boat is going. Three stops, all on Sant’Erasmo. The boat sits low in the water as we hum out further into the lagoon, surrounded only by pieces of land at water level covered in scrub. I get an idea of what Venice looked like before they built it. With every moment we grow further away from Venice itself and the profiles of islands I know. Burano is a distant memory.

The German father wears strange orange trousers with the seat and knees reinforced in brown tweed as though he might be going to crawl everywhere or shuffle on his bottom. On his feet are crocs and on his head a brown wool beret complete with tiny stalk. The mother carries a large rucksack with all the necessary, some of it strapped on the outside including a change of socks for the little girl who is dressed like Pippi Longstocking. In fact they are all so colourfully dressed I wonder whether they are in fact Dutch not German. The rhythms of their conversation sound German but above the steady thrum of the boat’s engine it is difficult to be certain. The boatman mutters Venetian dialect into his phone.

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The Fort at Sant’Erasmo built after Napoleon’s defeat was used as late as World War One by Italian soldiers. It is now an occasional exhibition centre.

Young, handsome, the Venetian is simply dressed in clean and ironed trousers, a blue pullover with grey collar and cuffs, sunglasses. I imagine he would smell delicious and it is delightful to watch him manoeuvre the boat with one hand as he talks on the phone with the other. Arriving at a stop he moors the craft and unchains the doorway still with one hand. Laid back does not begin to describe it. No-one gets on or off and the German makes a mime of looking for people, as in Why are we stopped? The Italian holds up two fingers – he has a timetable and we are two minutes early. Not a hundred feet away is a fisherman paddling up to his knees in the water, his boat rocking gently nearby in our wake.  Not a hundred feet away we could run aground and I realise that, laid back or not, our boatman really does know what he’s doing.

orto

Quite soon you pass the vineyards where they grow this local wine. Orto means vegetable plot and the wine is serenissimo like the republic Venice still takes itself to be.

Did I say it is sunny? And for an April day, very warm in the way that promises a certain summer. Back in England a sunny week in April can be all the summer we see. Not so here. What I love about Venice is that the seasons have more or less stuck to their guns. In Winter you will need a coat and maybe boots. In Summer the sand is so hot you cannot walk on it barefoot. In an unpredictable world these small certainties feel reassuring.

On this wonderful day with a blue sky I am taking a trip out into the lagoon to visit Sant’Erasmo where they grow many of the fruit and vegetables that feed Venice. When the local fruit-seller says the artichokes are ‘nostrana’ – ‘ours’ – this is what she means. In Erle Zwingler’s  lovely blog about living in Venice there’s lots more about the purple artichokes from Sant’Erasmo and all kinds of Venetian foibles. So I went to see this garden, second only in size to Venice itself, and found an entire island given over to cultivation and canals but also to birds, butterflies and bees.

flowers

I am jealous of the gardeners here. They seem to have no rabbits. No wire. No nibbled plants. Maybe being an island they have banished them. At home my globe artichokes are decimated by rabbits already this Spring. Walking the lovely canal-sides I am also struck by the no thistles and no nettles. Wherever drastic action is not taken at home, these become the foremost crop. So whether it is some generations of stamping them out or whether this is one more aspect of Italy’s charmed life I cannot say, but it is very lovely.

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One of the farms sitting in its own fields and canals

My guidebook to the invisible city describes Sant’Erasmo as a green mosaic and that is certainly what it looks like in the glorious sunshine. After a few hours walking I am hungry and my path has brought me back towards the boat stop where I landed. Knowing that Italians are never far from a bar and an aperitivo I’m not worried by the apparent lack of refreshments on offer. I know that round the next corner …. in the most idyllic spot … with its own private beach and some large shady trees – ah! there it is. The bar/restaurant that was bound to be there. It’s one of those places which could easily turn out to have a four language menu and a 100 euro price tag but I am in luck. It’s the local bar/pizzeria and I get a wonderful lunch of mussels and a view of the water.

restaurant

Mussels together with an Aperol Spritz and an espresso make the perfect lunch for another hour’s walk. The restaurant fills up while I am there. A pair of lovers, rolling each other’s cigarettes and stealing kisses between  mouthfuls. A trio of local working men, one wearing a gypsy bandana without a trace of self-consciousness. Gradually all the tables are full and the waitress moves faster and faster until they all have plates of food when she sits in the shade and lights her own cigarette.

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I walk back up the island towards the church where there is another boat stop. On the way I see pomegranates from last year petrified on the trees.

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In all my wanderings, apart from the German family who turn up here and there and the lunchtime crowd in the restaurant, I see no-one but some builders in a field renovating a house, a man walking his dog and a lady on a bike. I am gratified to be acknowledged by the lady on the bike with a slow ‘Buon giorno‘ and a nod of the head and I decide this is because I am dressed for April despite the hot weather. Venetians are never knowingly underdressed and would no more wear a T shirt in April than dance naked in the street. They are simply to discreet to see the happy tourists who make like summer in April with shorts and sunbathing.

church

The church, another boat stop (‘Chiesa‘)  and the local shop are clearly the hub of the island and there are about four islanders waiting for the boat as well as a young woman with small children and a dog taking the air. Nearby a duck submits to the attentions of her drake in an operation somewhere between mating and waterboarding. Seagulls comment in dialect and geese look the other way.

Time to take the boat home and here I am once more outwitted by the boat system. I get on the right boat going the wrong way when I change at Treporti and end up coming home via Torcello. The kindest thing I can say is that this is the scenic route. Nevertheless a grand day out.

Pasta with Broccoli and Gorgonzola

IMG_0835This is a nice simple recipe and totally delicious, suitable for vegetarians and adaptable if you are counting calories – what more can you want?

 

Ingredients

100g of your favourite pasta per person

1 large head of broccoli (trimmed and broken into florets) for 2-4 people (see below)

2 oz Dolcelatte or Gorgonzola per person

1 onion, finely chopped

olive oil

 

Method

  1. Sweat your finely chopped onion in a pan with a glug of olive oil.
  2. When the onion is cooked, boil a large pan of water for your pasta and briefly cook the broccoli heads in it.
  3. Scoop them out with a slotted spoon and add them to the pan with the onion.
  4. Cook your pasta in boiling water according to the instructions on the packet – usually 8-10 minutes. Drain.
  5. During the last few minutes of the pasta cooking time add the cheese cut into large cubes to the broccoli and the onion and put a very low heat under it. Be warned, you just want to melt the cheese very gently. If you give it too much heat the cheese will completely disappear.
  6. Add the broccoli etc to the pasta and spoon into dishes.
  7. Add a handful of toasted pine nuts or hazelnuts or walnuts to each dish.

 

Calories

Ordinarily, pasta is heavy on the calories but you can easily reduce the carbs in this dish by increasing the broccoli and reducing the pasta for those who are watching their weight.

Let your heart do the eating and give your brain a rest.

Now this post does not have a title that trips off the tongue easily but hear me out. This is about the mind and the heart and how we may get the best out of them. In this context the heart is not some sloppy sentimental old dear hanging like a millstone around the neck of that great warrior, the mind, and rendering it less efficient. It is the winged Sufi heart, a warrior in its own subtle way. The Sufi heart is a thing of great beauty and wisdom, a connector between body and mind, a temple within which to worship which reveals that where ever you turn, there is God’s face.

Unknown

Did you know the Buddhists do something handy when they are meditating. If they are distracted by discursive thought they simply label it ‘thinking’ and return the attention to the breath. It’s a great technique. No fighting, no arguing, just name it and return to the present. Thinking is pretty much how we run our lives here in the West. It has had a great press in these parts since the Enlightenment, so much so that we seem to have forgotten all other ways of being. Don’t get me wrong, thinking is a wonderful tool and it does things we cannot do without. Following a recipe springs to mind. Reading instructions for your new chainsaw (aargh!).

Our minds are a bit like the government. They tend to hog all the credit for what happens when it goes right and to blame the rest of the system (the body, the heart) when things go wrong. Yet the mind is wrong about all of that for our actions are rarely, as they seem, the end result of careful consideration. We now know that the body is preparing for the action you have committed to (lifting that glass of wine to your mouth) way before our minds know we have ‘decided’ to act. Monitoring our physiology reveals that the brain is already enjoying dopamine to the reward pathway while you still think you’re deciding whether to have the drink of not. Our conscious decision-making and careful weighing of evidence is not quite as linear a process as it feels. If you don’t believe me take a look at The Decisive Moment by Jonah Lehrer or Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman.

So the mind is not quite the action hero we thought. In addition, things not even accessible to my mind crop up all the time it’s just that the mind is very reluctant to acknowledge them. They may be of the elevated philosophical kind (the infinite nature of the universe, the apparently localised nature of time – what’s that all about??) but they may also be personal and hum-drum. Shall I go to my brother’s birthday party even though I am upset with him? Shall I tell my friend I don’t like the way her boyfriend treats her and of course he’s like the last boyfriend? The mind has a strong storyline about these things but the logical conclusion may not feel right. The heart has its reasons, said old Pascal, that reason knoweth not and while he wasn’t the kind of guy you’d want at a party, he had a point. He was no slouch in the mathematics department, young Blaise, but he knew the limits of thinking. In tricky areas I have to ask my mind to take a step back and engage with my Heart instead.

So what has all this to do with eating? Put simply, it is interesting when you are contemplating what to cook tonight or put in your mouth right now, to try that Buddhist technique and label all that is going on within your head as ‘thinking’. Let your enquiry into what to eat become a kind of meditation from which a wonderful action can emerge. It can let the steam off the pressure-cooker of the brain and its constant efforts to do the right thing.

This very morning I ended up in the beach kiosk having a splendid breakfast, a departure my mind had all kinds of reasons for not making. Great decision, thanks to my heart.

 

And now finally, you’ve been very patient, a recipe. This is a great dish if you have mixed vegetarians and meat eaters at the table since it goes brilliantly with steak or roast chicken or fish but can also hold up its head on its own.

Mozzarella Stuffed Aubergines for four

You can make it a day or two ahead and bake it as needed. If you don’t know what time people are arriving, take the dish out of the fridge in good time and get your oven nice and hot. When they knock the door pop it straight in the hot oven for half an hour or so while they are having a glass of Prosecco and an anchovy puff. (I’m coming to those).

1-2 aubergines depending on size

2 packets of mozzarella

A large bottle of tomato passata

Start by griddling some sliced aubergines, lengthways, pretty much as thin as you can slice them. Brush your griddle with olive oil and either salt and drain the aubergines first or simply sprinkle a little salt on them as you take them off the griddle to cool. Now cut the mozzarella into convenient chunky strips and wrap each one in a slice of aubergine. Roll the aubergine up into a sausage.

aubergine

As each little roll is ready position it in a shallow oven proof dish. When the dish is full cover the lot in tomato sauce. You can either use a bottle of passata ready made from the supermarket, or you can use the same bottle of passata that you have improved.

How to improve bottled passata

Depending on how much time you have you can either :

  1. let it reduce slightly in a large shallow pan with some olive oil, salt, fresh basil and a smashed garlic clove. (Some people add sugar – you need to taste and decide.)
  2. or add roasted fresh tomatoes to the pan as well

If you have mozzarella left over you can put slices on top. If not serve the baked dish with fresh Parmesan. It makes great leftovers too. It is calorie heavy so make sure to eat it with a large plate of salad and a light hand with the bread basket if you’re watching the pounds.

Anchovy Puffs (Halloumi also works)

I hardly like to give a recipe for these since I serve them all the time and they are shamefully easy. Once upon a time I got the idea from a Victorian cookery book called Mrs De Salis’ Sweets and Savouries which I bought as a student. I also use her Christmas pudding recipe. However we will not be using Ruby the kitchen maid to make the puff pastry when she gets up to light the boiler. We will be using Tesco’s best.

Roll out your shop bought puff pastry (fresh is better than frozen but frozen will do). Cover the sheet of pastry with individual anchovies our of a tin or jar and cut round each anchovy leaving a margin of pastry so that you can make a parcel of it. Now brush round the edges with milk and roll them up into fingers or parcels – it is impossible to make them unattractive so don’t worry – and put them on baking parchment on a baking tray.

Brush with milk or milk and egg and put into a very hot oven (180 degrees) 10 minutes before you want to serve them. Serve with paper napkins as they are a bit oily and flaky as well as delicious. (You can put your Stuffed Aubergine into the same oven.)

When it’s too wet to barbecue. (That’ll be August if you’re in England.)

There is nothing like the taste of barbecued food. Simple meats and fishes and vegetables are transformed by those smokey flavours into wonderful meals. In England, however, we usually get to barbecue about five times a year (if we’re really keen) and at least two of those occasions will involve the cook standing in the drizzle while the party happens indoors without you. To bypass the weather I have investigated adding a charcoal grill to my kitchen but sadly I accept they are only for the professional – so instead I have finally got to grips with the griddle.

Like you, I have had the cast iron monster lurking at the back of the cupboard for years and it fills the kitchen with smoke whenever I heat it up. Yes, that one. So instead (and I invite you to admire this radical approach) of a charcoal oven I have installed two powerful extractor fans and now I can actually use the griddle in the way it was intended, smoking hot with the emphasis, in my case, on smoking.

The funny thing about Italy is they don’t barbecue – at least not here in the Veneto – even though you could stand outside about 75 per cent of the year and not get wet. But they do griddle all sorts of thing and just recently I have been branching out and doing vegetables the Italian way.

courgettes

Here are some lunchtime courgettes or zucchini which you dress with oil and lemon juice and add to your salad or eat alongside your meat or fish. You’ll notice they look quite pretty too.

Trying to be more adventurous I also bought squid from the local fishmonger but being a novice I didn’t ask him to do prepare it in any way which left me with a quick lesson in squid anatomy. (Basically cut off anything you don’t fancy eating.) Then I brushed the rest with oil and added chilli salt when it came off the heat. I also sneaked in a couple of scallops which were meant to go in the oven as a first course but, hey, it got late and the first course was amalgamated into the only course!

squid

No real marks for presentation but this lot did taste really good!

Quickie breakfast to set you up for your work-out.

I’ve been reading for years that breakfast should be the big meal of the day and that has never suited me. (I read some research recently which suggests they got that wrong anyway!) My favourite breakfasts are leisurely affairs with boiled eggs, home made granola, bread and jam, lots of coffee. After that delicious and satisfying feast with the Sunday papers and Radio Four I’m also certain to be hungry again by lunchtime. Breakfast of any dimension seems to give my digestion a signal to wake up early and start kicking off.

So normally I stick to fruit salad but some days that just doesn’t cut it so I wanted to share this zippy addition to make your fruit salad a bit different for days when you need some protein first thing but you don’t want to go the whole hog. (LOL)

fruit and cheese

Here is the secret : adding some cheese (primo sale with rocket). Primo sale is a very mild fresh cheese and this version is squeaky so I’m hoping it is also low in fat. Anyway it’s delicious and you could use any cheese you like to the same end. (Roquefort is very satisfying.) Whatever you do you will be saving a ton of calories by not diving into the breakfast cereal. I’ve read that people who live with breakfast cereal visible on the kitchen counter weigh lots more than people with biscuits on show. In fact breakfast cereal bars and so on are often mistaken for health foods because they’re full of oats and fruit and the like. Yes, they’re full of good stuff if you’re about to run a half marathon but if you’re just dragging yourself to the office, think again.

This colourful plate gave me the energy for my work-out with Chalene this morning. Oh, you don’t know about Chalene! I am away from my regular classes which I love, so I have brought with me piyo DVDs which feature the awesome Chalene Johnson who invented piyo. She is gorgeous to look at and chock full of astonishing American enthusiasm and encouragement. By the time she is done with me I feel awesome too! Click on the link to see her in action and you may also be tempted to add her to your arsenal of tools to stay healthy.

 

Better Bugs

 

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The Hadza People

with Alice Crittenden, anthropologist

I have sung the praises of Radio Four’s The Food Programme before and here I am again putting their two programs on the microbiome right under your nose. In case you’ve missed it, the microbiome is now recognised to be such an important part of our inner workings that it qualifies as an organ in the human body. And what is it actually, the microbiome? To you and me it’s a fancy name for all the bugs hanging out in our digestive system. Word is there aren’t enough of them and we should be thinking about how to increase the little beasties, in number yes, but particularly in variety.

Two episodes of The Food Programme are devoted to hunting with the Hadza, one of the last remaining hunter gatherer tribes in the world whose world gives us an insight into our ancestry over the last ten thousand years or more. Two things really gripped me as about these ancient people. They have a totally non-hierarchical society (maybe, the program suggests, because food supply is not in the hands of any one section of society). Conflict is handled by moving away to begin another group. The second thing is that their colons harbour roughly forty per cent more friendly bugs than ours do and they don’t suffer from many of the digestive and autoimmune diseases that plague our society. Through this correlation and others it is slowly but surely becoming apparent that the flora and fauna of the gut (the micro biome) are related to our health and longevity. The cancers that kill us, the diabetes that plagues our population, the heart disease that is still the number one killer, not to mention the many allergies and intolerances which come to our notice ever more frequently – all these and more may have some relation to the extinction in our bodies of so many of the bacteria that would once have lived happily with us and us with them.

In visiting the Hadza, The Food Programme team revisit the human race some  thousands of years ago and some of the turnings we have made are thrown into relief. Turnings in our cultivation of food that have led us to our present paradox : societies with the most advanced medicine ever and no idea how to eat. Many of us are killing ourselves with food. As we hear the men of the tribe hunting porcupine and imitating the bird that will lead them to wild honey we get a sense of a time when our relationship with nature, with food and with each other made more sense than it does today.

In addition we learn about out relationship with those long ago human beings and I found it moving to do so. Feeling kinship with the rest of humanity is always enriching but to do so over thousands of years offers an opportunity to touch into the history of our human nature. I urge you to listen to this life-enhancing programme and the other episode on the same theme!

White Fish with Pine Nuts Butter and Steamed Greens

Meanwhile I have no recipe for porcupine but I am lucky enough to be in Venice once more and the supper recipe today is for white fish with pine nuts and butter. I am using sea bream which is easily available here but any white fish will do as long as it is filleted. It looks better without the skin on but I forgot how to ask the Italian fishmonger to skin the fish. (It’s spellare for skinning a chicken, I now know, but it still may be different for fish. Anybody out there know for sure?) TBH I was pretty pleased that I fluently asked him to fillet it and anyway I feel the skin is good for me.

This recipe is from one of my favourite cookbooks, Marie Claire Food Fast by Donna Hay and it’s as simple as they come. If you don’t have access to good fresh fish and you don’t want to use chicken, you can use this recipe for any vegetables that grill or fry well such as courgettes, aubergines but it is also excellent on steamed green beans as a side dish.

Melt some butter in a frying pan and toast your pine nuts in it before adding lemon juice (half a lemon for two people).

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Now take your fresh fish and add it to the pan for three or four minutes each side. Meanwhile steam yourself some French beans or Spring greens or spinach or broccoli. I used my colander with a lid on over a pan of water.)

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Then arrange the fish on top of the greens and pour over the nut butter. You can see how it would look prettier with the skin off but it did taste delicious.

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Afterwards the espresso and some gorgeously bitter Willi’s Cacao Pure 100 Per Cent Gold chocolate which is a new craze of mine. Giving all the health benefits of the cocoa bean and very little sugar, it also supports the Venezuelan people in their attempts to return to a cocoa based economy rather than oil.

 

 

Wedding Breakfast

Last week was a week of weddings and in addition the sun shone pretty much non-stop. In the face of these dual causes for celebration I completely forgot about eating kindly and consciously. My beautifully regulated digestion system, my quiet start to the day meditating in the open air, my attention to the quality and quantity of what I put in my mouth – all out the window! Too much wine, too much cake, not enough sleep, not a fruit or vegetable as far as the eye can see and here I am back in an uncomfortable place I know. Body uncomfortable. Shaming demons dancing in triumph. But just a minute …

Two good things about this disaster. First it is completely reversible. (The demons sit down, nonplussed.) Secondly I get a reminder of why I changed things. Overdoing it is no fun, turns out. (Demons scratching their heads.) I remember, after the event, why it is kind to say ‘not for me’ now and again. Even when it’s pink Champagne. Finally my body demands my attention and I have the awareness to give it. I am grateful for that. (Demons regretfully push off.)  So if this happens to you, don’t let the shaming demons in. Just enjoy your awareness as it returns with its cornucopia of blessings and notice that the time lapse between forgettings gets longer. Tip : gratitude is death to the shaming demons.

 

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Weddings, eh? Whether it is your septuagenarian aunt marrying her Facebook beau or your fresh-faced offspring romping up the aisle, there is that heart-stopping moment when the couple look at each other and make their vows. Suddenly all present understand the depth, the sacredness of what is happening. We understand it in our cells despite our minds. It is this depth, this presence that can be cultivated by the sensing practice. It is this depth, this presence which keeps me close to myself and which enables me to take care of myself. It is itself strong drink and I have a theory that it is because we cannot bear too much of it that our sacred occasions give way immediately to carousing and strong drink of a different sort.

This morning the sun is shy and the garden soaks up the sprinkling of rain that has refreshed the plants. The very last of the broad beans need picking and the first artichokes I have ever grown. I also have a yen to make pasta amatriciana with some very splendid looking rigatoni that a kind soul brought me from Spoleto.

rigatoni

It so happens that Amatrice is not far from Spoleto in Lazio, Italy, so the sauce and the big pasta will be soul mates. So here we go.

Rigatoni Amatriciana with Baby Artichokes for Two

First cut your baby artichokes from the plant and soak them to do away with wildlife. For this recipe the artichokes need to be small enough not yet to have developed the choke so no bigger than six or seven cubic centimetres. Now cut off about a centimetre nearest the stalk and start to peel off the outer leaves until you reach less tough ones.
Finally cut off the very tough tips of the leaves and cut each artichoke in half before poaching in water until tender – about ten minutes.

artichokes

You could grill them with goats’ cheese and put them on top of a salad or use them as a vegetable alongside others. I’m going to pop them on top of my pasta when it’s ready.

For the amatriciana sauce you should use 200g guanciale or diced cured pigs’ cheek but, pig cheek not being so popular in Oxfordshire,  I am making do with some dry cured smoked bacon lardons from good old Waitrose. Start by heating them gently in a heavy pan (no oil) until the fat is rendered and they begin to colour (10 minutes or so). Add half a finely chopped onion. (And if you don’t know how to chop an onion it really is worth learning which you can do from no less a figure than Gordon Ramsay right here.) Sweat the onion for ten minutes with the bacon and the lid on until soft and then add a tin of chopped tomatoes, a half teaspoon of chilli flakes and a pinch of salt. Let it just bubble for ten minutes and then set aside until you are ready to cook the pasta. Ideally you will have to hand a good handful of Pecorino sheep’ s cheese, you guessed, also from Lazio. Tonight I will be making do with some very old Grana or poor man’s Parmesan but then, it’s a poor (Ro)man’s dish.IMG_0604.JPGTo make this dish vegetarian is simple. You can add more chilli if you wish or finely chop some black olives, capers (and anchovy if you eat anchovy). This makes it more of a puttanesca and none the worse for being invented by Neapolitan prostitutes as a quick supper between clients.

When the pasta is cooked lift it out with tongs and put it into the sauce with a dash of pasta water. Mix well and serve with the cheese and a salad.rigatoni.JPG