It’s no secret that I love aubergines, or eggplants as some of you call them, or … well for argument’s sake let’s call them melanzane, the Italian word. So, it’s no secret that I love melanzane and would probably eat them every day, if I could. When cooked properly, they have the same mouth-puckering strength as a quality mature cheese. It’s no secret that I love cheese, or fromage, or … well let’s call it formaggio.
La dotta, la rossa, la grassa. These are the nicknames given to the city of Bologna by Italians. La dotta (the educated) because it boasts one of the oldest and most prestigious universities in the world. La rossa (the red) because of its distinctive red-brick architecture. And la grassa (the fat)? Because of its amazing food of course!
It has become one of my fundamental beliefs that you cannot find croissants in Italy. There are things that look like croissants, usually called brioche or cornetti, served up and down the country for breakfast in bars, but buy one and you will soon discover the difference between these sweetmeats and the traditional salt-and-butter French classics. And by croissant, I mean the full-fat, full-French version.
Italian brioche are sweet, with sugar in the pastry and usually a glaze of apricot jam on top. To satisfy the Italian sweet tooth they often come with crema pasticcera or apricot jam inside: to have a plain one you need to ask for an empty one, or una vuota. French croissants are slightly salty and made with lashings of fresh butter which means that they melt in your mouth and don’t stick to the roof of it. Having spent two years living in Paris, for me the Italian ones just don’t cut the butter and croissants are one of the very few things I miss.
This recipe is from Tuscany.
The colomba is to Italian Easter what the panettone is to Christmas. The name, which means dove, comes from its shape, representing the Holy Spirit, who in the New Testament of the Bible appears in the form of a dove. Like the panettone, the colomba is ubiquitous in the shops in the period leading up to the festival, and it’s notoriously difficult to make. The original recipe requires making three doughs and leaving each to rise for a couple of hours before using it to make the next one.
Although on a misty end-of-winter day like today you wouldn’t know it, La Madera is on the slopes of a mountain called Alpe Faggeta. A respectable height of 1,510 metres (4,954 feet) makes it taller than Ben Nevis, the highest peak in the United Kingdom. This appenine hill, however, would be dwarfed by the highest peak in Italy. This distinction goes to Monte Bianco, aka Mont Blanc, which straddles the French-Italian border and at 4,810 metres (15,780 feet) is the highest point in both countries, as well as Western Europe.
White ragù—Italian meat sauce without tomatoes—is one of my all time favourite dishes. I learnt it as a teenager from my Italian step-grandmother in her kitchen in Venice. She was noted for her ragù and people were forever asking her how she made it but, of course, she wouldn’t tell. But one summer morning while I was having breakfast, she called me over to the kitchen stove and allowed me to watch her make it. And I discovered the three secrets behind the taste.