Sunday, August 30, 2009

Medieval castles but not a knight in sight

Castello Saint PierreCounting castles...what we need now is a lively jousting event and fair maidens. Valle d'Aosta is the land of castelli (castles), and spotting them is almost like engaging in a game of punch bug. I felt that it wouldn't be right to leave out such historical detail, but the sharp contrasts...you'll see what I mean in the photos.

Now I don't know if it's due to Walt setting the standard on what a castle should look like, but through the dozen or so times that I've been here, not once did I make any real effort to appreciate these medieval landmarks that have withstood the test of time - save one. That would be the Castle of Sarre (3rd image), where we had our wedding photos taken. I believe that most castles are open to the public, and further info can be found here at Valle d'Aosta Castles. The Disneyish-looking one is Castle Saint Pierre (at right). It's a small world after all.

Castello Sarriod de la Tour
Parking sign [P] and picnic tables (not shown) in front of Castle Sarriod De La Tour.

Castello Sarre
I can only imagine what Sarre's royal landscape must've looked like centuries ago, long before the invention of the autostrada.

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Friday, August 28, 2009

La Thuile (home of the best little cheese shop in Valle d'Aosta)

Goat cheese assortment
Delectable orbs of goat cheese coated in a tempting assortment of spicy and nut flavorings.

I must've looked like a crazed, dangerous woman entering into La Maison du Fromage. With nostrils instinctively twitching, flaring, and breathing - no, inhaling - the bold pungency that exuded from within, it took every ounce of willpower to stick to "the plan". The plan? That's right, a plan to buy only what we could reasonably finish and not burn a hole in MotH's wallet. I had been waiting for months to finally make it to this place...such is our lust for cheese. Run by a mother, daughter and granddaughter team, they entice the cheese gourmet with the best the region has to offer - local prosciutto, sausages, breads... A plethora of pasta and local products beckon seductively from racks and shelves, ensuring that you simply can not leave without making a few purchases to bring home. The dumbstruck gaze on my face with Canon in hand said enough. "Signora, plain or with nuts?" the young woman asks me. She was offering a free bar of chocolate as MotH had engaged in lively conversion with the owner. It pays to be an amateur foodie journalist?

La Thuile Maison du Fromage Arnad le Vieux salami
Tegole Pan Ner Capriolo formaggio
1. La Thuile (center town) 2. Inside La Maison du Fromage 3. Arnad le Vieux salami
4. Tegole 5. Pan ner (black bread) on a rastrelliere 6. Capriolo - a soft cheese made w/cow & goat milk

...and then there's chocolate

A short walk up the street from La Maison du Fromage, a chocolate shop appropriately named Chocolat beckons like the lure of a siren call. We answered the call alright, but they were closed for the afternoon siesta. See you next time...

Chocolat
Chocolate olives
“Olives from Provence” - toasted Provence almonds coated in layer of dark chocolate then coated again in white chocolate that has been colored green and black.

...and places to stop in for a bite

Bathieu
Having a cute kitchen in the apartment rental meant buying local produce and eating in. An exception was lunch while we were in La Thuile, for which I am so glad that we stopped in at Brasserie du Bathieu. Lardo (cured fatback) is a specialty in this region, and I had the most exquisite sandwich made with only pane nero (black bread), lardo, and honey. That's it! I honestly wasn't expecting anything amazing, but since the goal is to eat what's typical in any given area, lardo/honey sandwich it was. The "Bathieu" - yes it had a name - wasn't going to win photo awards, but it was so surprisingly good that, naturally, we bought some pane nero and lardo to make this again at home. Ecco! Voila! Mid-morning snack to save the day.

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Thursday, August 27, 2009

Little Saint Bernard Pass & Lago Verney

Lago Verney from above

Lago Verney — It didn't seem right to visit the Great St. Bernard Pass without following up with the Little St. Bernard Pass (and there must be a joke in there somewhere) which was the destination we set off for on day #2. Just before the border between France and Italy, a natural body of water (pictured above) lent an ideal opportunity to set the dogs loose along a well-worn path that circles the entire shore of the lake. I was also particularly interested in taking some photos of alpine flora, namely, Eriophorum or Cottongrass, even if suspicious looks were shot in my direction by a small group of fishermen there. Either those boys were iLLitErAte or just plain sneaky, but clearly written signs state that fishing was not allowed. So not sorry that I invaded your illegal spot with the Canon. {laughing} In the summer months when the snow has melted, this area is a fine picnic spot for lovers of nature.

Eriophorum Eriofiori

Bed & Breakfast recommendation

La Vieille Cloche (the old bell) — my husband wrote a brief post with images [link] of which I'll also add that credit cards aren't accepted. The apartment "Dotto" (Doc in Snow White and the 7 Dwarves) is roomy enough for a family of 4 and comes equipped with stovetop and refrigerator. It also has a wood-burning fireplace to use in winter. I'm already looking forward to staying here early next year while there's still snow on the ground. Hot chocolate and panettone in front of a cozy fire...yeah!

Valle d'Aosta/Vallée d'Aoste

Regione Autonoma Valle d'Aosta - Tourism — a wealth of great information for the traveler. I especially made use of the site to learn about foods, traditions and events in the area. Written in italian, french, english, german and spanish.

Lago Verney

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Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Great Saint Bernard Pass

Colle del San Gran Bernardo

Colle del Gran San Bernardo — While the lovable, slobbering Beethoven may have earned Hollywood star status for his kind, Barry the Saint Bernard carried much more credit to his humble name. The Great St. Bernard Pass that leads into Switzerland wasn't far off from our lodgings, so a visit (by car) to where monks used to train the large breed as a rescue unit was a sort of salute to the canine world. Did we see a bunch of Saints? Well, yes and no. It depends if you're intent on seeing tables lined with stuffed pooches instead of living, breathing, panting hounds. Those rescuing days are long gone, having evolved into the hi-tech methods of modern times. I only remember having seen the dogs once on italian news where they were part of a search team. We didn't cross into Switzerland as Maddie and MrB had no passport, but we did take a short stroll around. The views are so unbelievably gorgeous in the Alps - no matter from where you are in the midst of it all.

St Bernard souvenirs

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Saturday, August 15, 2009

Pulehu #4: grillin' and chillin' on Ferragosto

MrB's bachelor pad

Ferragosto is the big holiday of summer, as the 15th declares that everyone in Italy is, or at least should be, off from work and having a ball. The meaning of the term comes from an era when gods and goddesses, all-knowing deities in the eyes of man, were still around before christianity gave them the boot. Be gone you pagans! Such is life - and the end of the toga.

August 15th is also supposed to be a very hot day, and in all of the previous years it seems to me that this has always been the case. Well, climate's a-changing and right now, at high noon, it's 76°F and cloudy. We've got stuff ready to throw on the grill and I'll be updating this entry with more food photos. For now I've got Mister B in his bachelor pad. We recently had it "outfitted" with airconditioning...a steal, really, at only 3€ for the little sign.

6 hours later...

Well I should've just shut my mouth on the weather. An eventual 85°F under a hot sun was plenty enough for the grillmaster. The flies started coming around, a lizard dropped down from nowhere and landed on the terrace, and all around the valley you could hear the pleasant chatter of families enjoying their ferragosto holidays. Too bad that summer is almost over.




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Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Baking muffuletta in the home kitchen

If, like so many others and myself you're determined to reconstruct your own Central Grocery muffuletta sandwich, the trickiest part (in my opinion) is getting hold of the muffuletta bread itself. Using anything else disqualifies it as being a proper muffuletta, and settling for anything but a "muff" after spending a fortune on italian deli meats, cheese and ingredients for that olive salad is just plain sacrilegious.

I was able to work out the following recipe using descriptions of various muffulette produced in Sicily. The muffulette required 4 basic ingredients: durum wheat flour, yeast, water and salt. Anise (or fennel seeds) and black pepper are also added, depending on the style in which the town's bakery makes them. Sesame seeds are used as a topping, but muffulette can also be left plain as seen in this photo. General specifications include a very soft, round-shaped bread that is approximately 8 ounces in weight (before baking) and roughly 5½ to 6 inches in diameter with a fine crumb. The most common way to eat muffuletta is with anchovies preserved in oil, salt, pepper and if desired, fresh ricotta. It is also interesting to note that muffuletta is traditionally tied to several religious observations.

Makes 4 muffuletta buns

3 1/3 cup durum wheat flour [500 grams] - for bread, focaccia, pizza, etc.
1½ cups warm water [350 ml]
1 package dried yeast granules [25g fresh cubed yeast]
2 teaspoons salt [10 grams]

For Muffuletta di Barrafranca: to the dry ingredients add 1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper and 1 teaspoon dried anise or fennel seeds. After shaping, make an incision in the center.
For Muffuletta di Caltanissetta: to the flour and salt add 2 teaspoons of anise seeds (more if you like the flavor). Sprinkle with white sesame seeds after shaping.
For Muffuletta di Niscemi: for those who like it plain and simple, this version does not have any added spices or seeds.

Combine the flour, salt and other flavorings as necessary in a large bowl. Make a well in the center and add the water. Sprinkle in the yeast and let dissolve before stirring to combine to a soft dough. Turn out onto a lightly floured work surface and knead for 10-12 minutes until smooth and elastic. Place in a lightly oiled bowl; cover and let rise in a warm spot for 60-90 minutes or until doubled in size.

Muffuletta basic ingredients
Muffulette ready for the oven
Clockwise from upper left: Barrafranca style, Caltanissetta style, Niscemi style

Turn dough out onto work surface and divide into 4 equal pieces. Shape into ball and roll out to approximately 5.5 to 6 inches in diameter. Place onto a heavy, parchment-lined baking sheet and set in a draft-free area for about 25-30 minutes, but not until it has doubled in size. In the meantime, preheat oven to 400°F (temperatures vary from oven to oven, but what you want is a very hot setting to be able to bake these quickly). Bake for about 15-20 minutes until lightly browned on the outside. Keeps for about 2 days in an airtight container.

Plain muffuletta Sesame seed covered muffuletta
Source references:
www.ilcucinario.it/RICETTE%20STAMPA/RICETTE_NONNA/RICETTE/RICETTA_70.htm
www.ars-alimentaria.it/listProdottiRegione.do?siglaRegione=190&idCategoria=15&tipologia=

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Thursday, August 06, 2009

1-2-3 pickled peperoncini or cipollini

Peperoncini dolci

Pickling the small, white cipolline onions is one of my favorite summertime rituals, but this is a first for pickling the long, sweet peppers - peperoncini dolci - that flood the produce shelves as well. For me, pickled pepperoncini (note the american spelling!) has always been associated with pizza or italian subs - a small side portion of limp, pale peppers along with packets of grated parmesan cheese. These symbolic gestures of american fast food culture don't exist here of course, but I really do miss the briny taste and bite of pepperoncini.

The 1-2-3 reflects the three easy steps to pickled success. I prefer crisp/crunchy instead of a soft texture, and while I've only done small white onions and podding radish, I think any firm vegetable that handles blanching should work here. When blanching green beans, it is the immediate plunging into ice cold water that retains a crisp texture, and by that token act it is the immediate pouring of cold pickling liquid over hot vegetables which gives the same results. These are refrigerated items, meant to be consumed within a few months. I alternate between white or red wine vinegar, the latter for reasons of coloring only. Making these requires an extra day in advance in order for the pickling liquid to be very cold.

Pickled sweet peppers and onions

1 pound small white onions, peeled or
1½ pounds sweet peppers, rinsed clean and dried
1 cup granulated sugar
4 tablespoons salt
1½ cups water
2 bay leaves
1-2 teaspoons pink peppercorns
2 cups white wine or red wine vinegar
Two 3/4 liter heavy jars for pickling, rinsed clean and dried

Combine the sugar, salt, water, bay leaves and peppercorns in a small pot and bring to a boil. Cool to room temperature and stir in the vinegar. Refrigerate overnight or until needed.

Bring a large pot of water to a boil and blanch vegetables 4 minutes or until crisp-tender. Remove and drain well in a colander. Working quickly (watch your fingers!), distribute them equally between the pickling jars. The vegetables must be hot!

Immediately pour cold pickling liquid over vegetables until covered. Snap the tops back on and bring to room temperature before storing in refrigerator. I always say to allow to sit for at least a week before serving, but it always ends up that we simply cannot wait and dip into the jars as early as 3 days after pickling.

Pickled cipolline