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.

 

images.jpeg

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

Alice, Goldilocks and Heidi

Lido by Rob

Alice

‘If seven maids with seven mops Swept it for half a year, Do you suppose,’ the Walrus said, That they could get it clear?’

This is the beach in Venice where I have been spending some time. In May the weather is less exciting than this October photo but very beautiful. The breakwaters head out into the sea and in early morning they offer a great place to be alone with the waves. When life is busy and people are all around it can be a real breath of fresh air to make some space for myself alone.

Aloneness is quite difficult to achieve in Italy and even at seven in the morning teams of men are getting the beach ready for its grand opening on the 1st of June. They sweep the sand and pick up all the seaweed evoking shades of The Walrus and the Carpenter. They relay all the flagstones around the beach huts. They paint fences and mend awnings. It feels as though a great play is about to open and when the beach opens for business and the (mostly) local people turn up with their summer accoutrements to rent their hut for the season, the drama begins. The curtain comes down after the film festival in September and the beach is returned to the dog walkers and strange people who like to commune with the Absolute by the sea.

Goldilocks

‘Who’s been sitting in my chair?’

This morning I am not there any more. I am in Germany which feels like a land of giants in comparison – the desk chair in the bedroom makes me feel like Goldilocks. About three us of could sit in it comfortably. This morning is a time of reflection before a week’s retreat and the first thing I know is the that my body will be grateful for a holiday from too much food and drink. Like you I do know how to look after myself but when there are visitors to share things with and places you’re never going to come back to it seems somehow wrong to turn things down so I have been saying ‘yes’ too often. Happily my body is making it easy for me to take a break since I can feel its longing to be treated with lightness and delicacy for a while.

Heidi

‘On a clear sunny morning in June two figures might be seen
climbing the narrow mountain path; one, a tall strong-looking
girl, the other a child whom she was leading by the hand, and
whose little checks were so aglow with heat that the crimson
color could be seen even through the dark, sunburnt skin.’

Last night’s overnight’s stop in rural Germany was a wonderful step back into another age and every dish came with home made buttered noodles and potatoes on the side in case you might have a corner to fill. My salmon (a feint towards health) came in batter with noodles and would have fed a family of four. I ate way too much! The delightful middle-aged waitress in a dirndl skirt was so smiley and hospitable I would really have liked to have eaten even more just to please her. In fact I would have liked to take her home with me just to be cheered up by her gemutlichkeit – that famous cosiness which Germany offers – whenever I felt glum. I was right back there with Heidi and her grandfather in one of my favourite childhood books. The idea of drinking goat’s milk and sleeping in the hayloft still lifts my spirits even though neither is quite as delicious as I thought. But there is in this a longing for simplicity and the love of attuning to what is needed.

So onward to Holland for some merciful discipline and some loving mindfulness.

The Fish Market

pescheriaThe Fish Market at Rialto on Christmas Eve

It was great fun to struggle through the crowds to the pescheria like a Venetian on Christmas Eve. Traditionally only fish not meat passes their lips on La Vigilia but on the other hand there’s no way you could call it a fasting day! Italian housewives are out until the evening topping up their extensive provisions for the banquets to come.

Traditionally I offer a Lobster Supper (festive, nearly calorie-free and no cooking) on Christmas Eve but Venice seemed to be pretty much a lobster-free zone so we had a variety of other things instead. The recipe I think worth sharing is for a simplified Coquilles Saint Jacques which came after the garlic and chilli prawns and before the San Pietro (John Dory). You can see the scallops in the picture above but sadly we ate them too fast to offer you a photo of the finished dish. The local baker had for sale Panettone made on the premises and melting Lindt Intense dark orange chocolate and adding a little thin cream made a pudding worthy of the name. Let me know what you think!

Of course the great thing with fish is that you can eat your own weight in the stuff without putting on a pound so a little chocolate sauce is definitely allowed.

 

Coquilles Saint-Jacques for four

One scallop per person, ideally with its shell (but you can use a cocotte dish)

2 x leeks trimmed and very finely chopped

100g of Parmesan or another hard cheese finely grated

A glass of white wine

A small pot of single cream

A handful of white breadcrumbs per person

A tsp of olive oil

Make sure the scallops are really clean. This is a given if they’ve come from the supermarket but not, let me tell you, if the fish market has been involved. Get rid of any sand and trim them if they need the membrane removing.

Poach them in a little water for a couple of minutes and then fish them out and set them and the liquid aside while you make the sauce.

Sweat the finely minced leek in the olive oil until it has nearly melted. Then add all the breadcrumbs as if you were making a roux. Gradually add alternate tablespoons of white wine and cream to the leek and breadcrumbs until you have a sauce thick enough to spoon over the scallops. Now taste it and adjust the proportions (more cream?, more wine?) and the seasoning. If the sauce is too strong you can add a tablespoon of the scallop cooking water.

Arrange each scallop on its dish and spoon over a generous amount of thick sauce. Allow to cool. Cover with cling film and set in the fridge until you want to eat them. Allow them to come back to room temperature and grate some cheese over each before putting in a very hot oven for ten minutes or until the sauce bubbles slightly.

This isn’t as grand as the traditional version with piped Duchesse potatoes but it does taste as good and you have no piping bag to wash. (Result!)  It’s really useful as an impressive course in a special meal as it can be done the day before.

 

In Italy at Last

paviaBreakfast at Le Stanze del Cardinale, Pavia

This was our breakfast buffet at a wonderful B & B in Pavia called Le Stanze del Cardinale. where Martina and her colleagues make you feel so welcome. In addition to the delicious bread, jam and cakes they insisted on cooking us bacon and eggs – perhaps because they knew we were English. In any case it was a great start to the last day of our journey. Pavia was another beautiful Italian city that we had too little time to explore but we shall certainly be back. The B & B overlooks the Piazza del Duomo. Gorgeous.

In a hop skip and a short ferry ride we were in Venice.

venice-2View from the car ferry to the Lido

After all that traffic and all those different stops, I arrived with quite a lot to do to prepare Christmas for friends and family in Venice. Not surprisingly the old IBS started playing up and I could feel a bad throat coming on. But I have discovered turmeric milk with the help of another blog called Cooking Without Limits and this has had a powerful effect on my system such as I would never have believed. My new packet of ibuprofen remain unopened! I knew that turmeric is a healing Ayurvedic spice good for inflammation and but it had never occurred to me that you could enjoy it with hot milk, cinnamon and honey or put it on your porridge. I can’t say for sure that the cold has gone but certainly I feel heaps better. I shall sprinkle it wherever I can to fend off Christmas colds.

porridge-2Here is the rainbow porridge with toasted flaked almonds, cinnamon and turmeric as well as a spoonful of sugar. I could feel it doing me good! I would love to hear if you try it.

 

Creating Value in Calais

unnamed-3The beach at Bleriot-Plage

It was last summer that I realised we could begin our drive to Italy with a nice easy afternoon crossing the Channel by tunnel and then stay the night at Bleriot-Plage, Calais,  under the auspices of the venerable Les Dunes Hotel and Restaurant. Instead of a crack of dawn start and the worry that you left the oven on/front door open/passport on the kitchen table (or is that just me?) you get to potter off after lunch and arrive in time for dinner. There is no reason to make life harder than it already is.

Les Dunes is just around the corner from where M. Bleriot won the Daily Mail’s £1000 bet by building an aircraft and being the first man to cross the Channel in it in 1909. It is not grand but it is run with love and the very nice food is supplemented by wine curated with skill and adoration by  M. Philippe Mene, patron. He has some great wines of great age and some good half bottles (what happened to half bottles?). It would be positively churlish not to try them! Given half a chance M. Philippe will lead you astray with clarets from the 70’s and a glass of Sauternes (on the house if you’re having the foie gras).

philippeM. Philippe Mene, patron

 

foie-gras The foie grascreme-bruleeThe creme brûlée

When I was a child it was France we looked to for all things sophisticated and refined and on their day the French still lead the world in certain aspects of their special cuisine. What perhaps has been lost – and for which we now look to Italy – is the value that they used to afford mealtimes. I’m sure there are fewer proper lunches and lingering dinners in France than there used to be. Maybe they are valuing their productivity or their health more than they used to, I don’t know. Value and self-esteem are big things in therapy and I thought I might shoe-horn them into this tribute to Les Dunes if you’re feeling patient.

Self-Esteem : a recipe

Once upon a time low self-esteem was the neurosis of choice in England. It seems now to have ceded its position to anxiety and depression, two sides of the same coin if ever there were one. I wonder whether much has changed, however, beyond the way we relate to those unpleasant feelings of meaningless and dread, feelings which often bring us into therapy and invariably accompany a lack of self-worth. There is a very simple treatment for that lack of value that we feel and, in my experience, it may shift the meaninglessness and dread as well. The treatment may sound too ridiculously simple to work but work it does. Give it a whirl. You can do it right where you are sitting.

But just a cotton-picking minute, I hear you say, I don’t want to pay attention to myself when I’m full of horrible scary feelings. The feelings may come and eat me up. The secret is that they don’t. Try it and see. Curiously, as I pay attention to my body and even to the feelings themselves they often metamorphose into less troubling experiences or open up into something entirely different. We pay attention to those things we value and the more I pay attention to myself, to what is actually happening in this location that I call me, the more I accrue internal value. This paying of attention, we can call it mindfulness or not, in fact gives the whole organism the message that it is valuable.

So take a deep breath and have a go. You can start with the soles of your feet. Close your eyes (if it’s not too scary) and see if you can locate yourself in the soles of your feet. Spend a few moments feeling them and what they feel. It may take practice before you can feel anything at all. That’s fine.  Meanwhile just notice what it’s like not being able to feel them. Notice sensations, thoughts, ideas, judgments, memories that arise and let it all be just as it is. Commune a while with the internal landscape of your feet. What harm can it do?

Clients often abandon this pretty much straight away because it is a challenge but it isn’t the sort of challenge they were expecting. It’s not complicated or expensive. There’s no equipment involved. You don’t need a book or a therapist to do it for you. In a word it’s not glamorous. It’s free. It’s available every waking minute of your day and only you will know you’re doing it. That is the whole point! You are paying attention to you, treating yourself as something of value. Bear with me. Have a go. Start by locating your consciousness in your feet and after a few minutes move on to sensing your ankles, your lower legs, your thighs. Then start again. Flood your finger tips with your awareness and work your way up to your shoulders. Now see if you can feel both arms and both legs at the same time. As you open your eyes and begin to function again see if you can stay deeply rooted in yourself. See what that’s like and whether it impacts your mood. How often should you do this? Until it’s second nature. In hardened cases like me, this can take a long time but it’s worth it.

When you’ve done your homework you can treat yourself to the recipe below for the most amazing egg custard I have ever eaten or made. It’s not creme brûlée but it’s wholesome and delicious and tastes as though you have used cream. (La Casella is a delightful agriturismo near Orvieto.)

Maria’s Egg Custard from La Casella

4 whole eggs

8 egg yolks

250g caster sugar

1 litre whole milk

vanilla

Scald the milk with the vanilla and cool until it won’t cause the eggs to cook. Work the eggs with the sugar until they are as one and add hot milk. Pour into an oven proof dish in a bain marie for one hour at 180 degrees. Makes 12 generous small pots.

 

 

From Asthall to Venice

dawn-lightDawn in Asthall, December 2016

Returning from Venice to London on the train via Germany, one of the fascinating things that tells you you’re changing region, changing climate, changing mentality, is the change in food. Food reflects all of these things : the weather, the appetite, the way people eat. Leaving Santa Lucia station on the night train you leave behind pretty good Italian station food : pizza and toasted sandwiches along with a fully stocked shop overflowing with the sweet things Italians love to give and to travel with. Biscuits, cakes, chocolates as well as different wines and aperitifs. By the time you hit the mountains, where the people speak German but are technically Italian, the food on offer is well on the way to including potatoes and dumplings with polenta as a half way house. The travellers boarding at Trieste or further down the line are differently built and the universal clink of ice in a glass of orange or red aperitivo is heard no longer. Beer becomes the order of the day.  The people begin to look different. As they get taller and heavier and by and large blonder, the  buildings change from the Italian flat-topped to the butterfly rooves of the chalets.

For myself I prefer the journey going South towards the sun and the sweet things and that I am about to do! Tomorrow we set off in the car towards Venice and I thought I would share the food with you along the way. Tonight, Asthall. Tomorrow, Calais. Watch this space.

My Italian Cook

 

marika

Of course Marika Seguso, pictured here in her Venetian kitchen, is not my Italian cook (I wish!) but my Italian neighbour. She is, however, the Italian cook who has taught me and so many others something about basic Italian cooking. Marika is a chef who now teaches the lucky few in her Venetian cookery school Aquolina.

It was at Marika’s exceptional B & B, Villa Ines,  that I used to stay before buying my own flat on the Venetian Lido and she is indeed the real deal, Venetian herself and married into one of the oldest Venetian families, Seguso, who have their own factory on Murano still making extraordinary glass.

The Italian Meal

A word here about the Italian meal which is so defeating to visitors. If you’re not in a pizzeria then you see four courses offered on the menu – likely more than you want to eat or pay for. Over some years I have observed how Italians allow the menu to serve them and how they are feeling, never the other way around. Most commonly they close the menu straight away and ask ‘What’s good tonight?’ The ‘special’ is usually just that – what was best in the market that morning. In my suspicious, English way I used to think it would be something they had made too much of! I was completely wrong.

In Venice at least, the cold fish antipasto is a must. The next course is the pasta/risotto/soup i.e. it is the carbohydrate course. Don’t be afraid to share this or to miss it out altogether if you’re not so hungry. You can move straight from the antipasto to the main course if you are so minded, but equally you can have an antipasto and a pasta and stop there with honour satisfied. One of the best tips I can give you is to order the first two courses, sharing if you will, and then to ask the waiter to come back and see how you are feeling. Unlike many English kitchens, Italian chefs are happy to take orders as you go. See what you feel like once you’ve had some food. You can then share a main course, have your own or do without. No-one will think ill of you for this and it means you can go to a smart restaurant without feeling you have to eat a good deal more than you enjoy. The horrible dynamic that many of us grew up with is completely absent in Italy. You don’t need to impress the waiters!

Typically a couple will order like this. Two antipasti. One pasta (largely eaten by the man). One or two main courses (meat or fish). One pudding. Not too overwhelming on the purse or the digestion.

Spend a day with Marika in her kitchen and you will learn to make gnocchi, risotto and an authentic tomato sauce. If you have longer she will take you to Rialto, to the fish market and you can learn something about food shopping the Venetian way. She is a very busy, professional person and a mother, but she always makes time to be kind to her visitors and to share her enthusiasm for Venice and for food. Last summer I saw the catering she provided for summer weddings in her garden and if you need a place to get married you could not do better. Let me leave you this morning with her recipe for gnocchi, a typically cheap, Italian dish, a labour of love for the ingredients and the guests.

Gnocchetti di Patate al Pomodoro e Basilico

Gnocchetti :

1 kg potatoes boiled and finely mashed – a ricer is good for this but if not available be thorough with a fork.

1 egg yolk

up to 300g flour

parmesan cheese to taste

s and p

For the Sauce :

a good bottled tomato pasta such as Biona

garlic clove

sugar

basil

s and p

  1. saute the garlic clove whole in the oil for a minute and then add the passata, more salt and sugar than you would think necessary and some of the basil.
  2. Allow to cook uncovered and very slowly, the sauce barely bubbling for an hour or more and it will thicken. Remove the garlic and basil.
  3. Meanwhile make a dough with the mashed potato, some of the flour, the egg yolk and the parmesan. (Start with 100g and then taste as you go.)
  4. Roll the dough in long thin sausages and cut into half inch gnocchi.
  5. Toss with flour and keep dry and cool until cooking
  6. Lower into boiling salted water and strain as soon as they come to the top
  7. Toss with olive oil and either keep to reheat later or serve immediately with the sauce and Parmesan. Strow more torn fresh basil.

Butter and sage sauce can be used instead of the tomato. For this saute garlic, sage leaves and butter until slightly brown. Remove the garlic and sage and serve the butter with the gnocchi.