Long Time No See

Long Time No See

Oh my gosh, where has the time gone? I can only apologise for the long silence but such a lot has been happening. So for now just a little catch up on this summer.

Over the summer I was enjoying the beach in Italy and the Venice Film Festival where I caught Some Like It Hot on the big screen. There was a trip to Sicily and !!FLASHING LIGHTS!! the temples at Agrigento. Do not die without going to Agrigento. In fact, go now! This is one of the most blessed spots in the world. I have been there three times : at twenty something, at forty something and now at sixty something. Maybe the next visit needs to be a little sooner … So I lingered in the baking heat with the setting sun turning the temples bright gold and lizards hanging out under the olive trees and the sea as blue as a promise in the distance. I clambered over stones that were trodden by those ancient Greeks who very sensibly made their home in Sicily. In 1980 there was no fence around the temples, no ticketing system, no nothing, just the temples themselves standing neglected in the valley half an hour’s walk from the town. I went at daybreak and at sunset, entranced by the ancient stones and the freedom with which I was allowed to walk, sit and climb on them. A few German tourists came and went but mostly you could pretend you were a few thousand years ago. All that changed and it got very tacky with tickets and barbed wire. Now it’s a UNESCO World Heritage site and as you would expect it has been done with no expense spared and extremely tastefully. Shady paths wind between the temples and discreet wooden barriers prevent the hordes (for there are now hordes) climbing on the temples themselves. They have planted a wonderful orange and lemon grove down near the river where they grow bergamot lemons and sell marmalade of the same. The combination of taste and perfume is intoxicating.

Sicily has roads that haven’t been mended since the last little earthquake so it was an interesting drive around the island with quite a lot of reversing out of impassable situations and a certain amount of bickering between driver and map reader. But the food was out of this world. We had the best ever breakfasts in a fabulous little B & B Raffo (agriturismo) about forty minutes outside Agrigento. The owner drove to the local town each morning to buy croissants and tiny, deep-fried envelopes of pastry filled with sweetened ricotta and blitzed pistacchio nuts. They were so fresh they practically shook hands. Ricotta and pistacchio nuts are BIG in Sicily and we never got tired of them.

In Taormina with a huge silvery moon gazing down on our little table by the sea we ate the delicately flavoured pasta with pistacchio pesto and prawns that had been mooching about in the sea earlier in the day. Further along the coast in Menfi at Da Vittorio’s we ate an indecent amount of astonishing pasta with seafood and spices as we watched the sea lapping nearby. Near Menfi we stayed at a rather grand winery called La Foresteria where the food was delicious and the wine had travelled all the way from the vineyard outside. As you see, the theme that’s emerging is local food. Local food is such a buzz term now but in Italy it is just what they eat. Some of it was grand. Some of it was very unassuming. It was all melt in the mouth and yes, I came back two sizes larger.

But a major thing has happened this summer which I tell you about in due course – I have begun to fly again, having had a gap of many years. It has been a big journey and one with psychological implications well worth the telling. For now, mix yourself a Campari Spritz, enjoy the photos of Agrigento and remember the hot hot summer.

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Goodness me.

Goodness me.

When we start being kinder to ourselves a virtuous circle is created. We begin to feel our own goodness just as we are … and that makes it easier to be kind … and that makes us feel good. Being good to yourself makes you feel good and it makes you feel much less aggravated by other people too.

Letting yourself alone, just appreciating yourself as you are without trying to change a thing allows you to sense your own goodness. In not trying to change a thing, space arises for change to happen naturally.* The more we nag at ourselves the more we rebel. Try easing off and see what happens.

*I’m not talking about those of us in a place where we need specialist help with an addiction or an eating disorder that is harming our health. Today I’m just talking to the averagely dissatisfied amongst us.

Italy is a great place for learning this lesson as Italians seem to have a natural gift for appreciating their own beautiful country and the huge pleasure of being alive. The photo above is of a large campo in Venice called Santa Maria Formosa and this is the church. In the photo below you see a lovely scene unfolding opposite the church one Italian morning. A young man is stripping off like Michelangelo’s David. He has come with all his kit to mend the pavement  but that doesn’t stop him giving directions to the tourists that ask him for help or performing a little for the ladies shopping at the vegetable stall. He is Italian after all. He wasn’t actually singing Mozart as well but it was touch and go.

stall

Beneath this photo again is a breakfast I prepared recently for a bunch of young people staying with us. They were such fun to feed, so full of life and enthusiasm, such beautiful creatures to have around and they devoured this spread with vigour. I think the goodness of the food, most of it raw local fruit, fresh bread and cheese can be seen from the photo. The little black grapes are called fragole because they taste of strawberries.

fruitbread and cheesecaponataIn this last photo you can just see next to the local sheep’s cheese a dish of caponata and this is the recipe I’d like to share today. Quite like a French ratatouille, the Italian caponata has the added sweet and sour agrodolce taste that speaks of a multicultural heritage.

 

Caponata

2 x aubergines cut into small cubes

2 sticks celery cut into small cubes

2 small onions, finely sliced

1 large red pepper, deseeded and cubed

A bottle of good passata or fresh tomato sauce

balsamic vinegar

red wine vinegar

2 tsps sugar

salt and pepper

olive oil

10 black olives, stoned

a handful of capers (ideally the ones that come salted)

 

Cutting the vegetables into cubes is worth doing carefully so that they are reasonably small and of a uniform size. It makes a better finished product.

First salt the aubergine cubes in a colander and leave to drain for at least half an hour. Wash and pat dry before frying in a good plug of olive oil in a large frying pan. Fry until the water is all gone (the sizzling stops) and the aubergine cubes have browned. Remove from the pan with a slotted spoon and set aside.

Add more oil to the pan and add the celery, pepper and onions. Cook over a low heat until they have softened (quicker with a lid) and then add the passata. and simmer for 15 minutes. Put the aubergines back in. Add the two vinegars , the sugar, the capers and the olives. Start with a tablespoon of each vinegar and 2 tsps of sugar and then taste. See whether it needs more acid (lemon juice or vinegar) or more sugar. A drop of red wine might not go amiss. It will need salt and pepper as well. Cook another ten minutes and then cool. Serve at room temperature.

I made a large quantity of this and served it one evening on tiny bruschetta before dinner, then in this breakfast buffet and finally (when the guests had gone) on pasta with some good Parmesan. A dish with sufficient flavour for a vegetarian main course. It is also fabulous with anchovies on the side but the is very little, I find, that isn’t improved by a few anchovies.

Stormy Weather

Stormy Weather

About two months ago things went wrong for me visiting Lisbon for a wedding.  I ended up in casualty with a bad UTI and when I eventually saw the twelve year old doctor and got my hands on some antibiotics (you could get Ecstasy easier) I thought that was that. But no. There has been pain and panic ever since.

A major attack of IBS followed and by the time I was back in England a horrible burning pain in my side which especially played up at night when I had all the leisure in the world to worry about it. A trip to casualty in England (and let me tell you Lisbon makes the National Health look like Los Angeles) established that it wasn’t a kidney stone and then they sent me home with the pain which was now a hundred times worse courtesy of lying on the scanner and worrying.

The moral of my tale is twofold. Doesn’t worrying make things so much worse (and actually produces physical sensations to order)? Secondly cause and effect is usually so much more complicated than we imagine. After months of osteopathy I was still not able to sit and meditate nor go to my piyo classes. I foresaw a future of sloth and a balloon shaped me wearing shapeless dresses. Utter misery. I tried meditating lying down and other versions but it wasn’t the same. Opening the French doors and sitting on my cushion, semi-exposed to the elements, has become a precious way to start my day and I was very sorry for myself contemplating that this might be a thing of the past. Also I had a wardrobe full of clothes I felt too bloated to wear.

Gradually I came to accept what the osteopath gently broke to me : there was a disc involved which was causing referred pain. I can’t tell you how I fought against this diagnosis but I did stop exercising and it did stop being absolute agony and reduced to miserable. But I also realised that the IBS was also still shouting its head off. So I have stopped looking for one simple treatable-give-me-a-pill-or-an-operation cause. As ever it is my spine and my bowels playing up under stress. So not even the glamour of something serious.

I am sharing this with you (and you may well say I am sharing way too much) because it can really help to stop looking for a cause and resign yourself to kindness and forbearance as a way of treating things (once serious illness has been ruled out by scans and so forth).

Arriving in Venice yesterday in stormy weather (see picture) I felt the stress fall away and this morning I did some yoga and obtained some clicks from my poor spine which may just have set things on the mend. There was no hurrying this – I just had to wait and to all those who have put up with me patiently while I learned to wait : Thank you!

I’m not sharing a new recipe today but I include photos of porridge in its different guises, sweet and savoury and risotto which seems to help the IBS big time.

 

 

Blood Orange & Campari Cake (Gluten Free)

Blood Orange & Campari Cake (Gluten Free)

Coming to the end of a period in Venice I wanted to share my favourite Venetian cake with you and I found that there is already a brilliant blog with the recipe which I reblog below. A great cake in its own right, it is especially useful for the gluten-free guest.

Scaredy-Cat Kitchen

The Christmas before last my friend Jodie bought me the Polpo cookbook. After about 2 minutes of looking at all of the amazing Venetian recipes I was utterly obsessed with the blood orange and campari cake. Massive negroni fan that I am, I couldn’t imagine a better combo for the perfect cake and knew I had to make it as soon as possible!

Blood Orange & Campari Cake 3

However, procrastination is my greatest skill, so a few months passed with no sign of the cake and then all of a sudden, blood orange season was over. So when blood oranges season kicked off again this year I knew I had to grab the bull by the horns, juice 8 oranges and get this cake on my coffee table.

Blood Orange & Campari Cake 2

Now it has happened, and in celebration I have made my first ever gif! (Yes, I’m massively behind the times, but cut this technophobe some slack!) 

Blood Orange & Campari Cake 1

Blood oranges…

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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.

fort

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.

mussels

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.

pomegranates

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.

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.)

Alice, Goldilocks and Heidi

 

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.