Sicilian Cuisine – Savouring the Flavours

Sicilian Cuisine – Savouring the Flavours

The cool, calm, quiet of the Consoli kitchen is in complete contrast to the clamour of Catania’s colourful market. We explored the market as part of our Celebrity Cruises Sicilian Gastronomic Adventure and the next part of the tour was to immerse ourselves into the flavours, cooking customs and rich history of Sicilian cuisine.

Where better to do that than in the kitchen of a family whose recipes and cooking techniques have been handed down through the generations from mother to daughter again and again. Eleanora Consoli’s kitchen.

Sicilian Produce

A Basket of Sicilian Produce ready for cooking

 

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Food from the Tuscan Table

Food from the Tuscan Table

Tuscan cuisine is food for the soul; intense fresh flavours from a few choice ingredients which have been freshly picked or pulled from the earth. Unpretentious, seasonal and prepared with passion.

Think lazy, hazy afternoons sipping a glass of ruby-red Chianti Classico and dipping into a platter of fennel infused salami with chunks of fresh focaccia soaked in gleaming pools of translucent extra-virgin olive oil. Black olives and sun-dried tomatoes complete the simple pleasures of a Tuscan table.

View from a Tuscan Table

View from a Tuscan Table

Tuscan food is based on the idea of Cucina Povera or “peasant cooking.” Simple, seasonal meals that can be made in large amounts without costing the earth. Local, homegrown and ‘nostrale’ meaning simply ‘ours.’ Today, I’m glad to say, it’s a trend of choice and not a necessity and we ate some amazing food during our stay in the Tavarnelle commune of Chianti. So, what foods to eat in Tuscany?  Let me whet your appetite…

Ingredients for a Tuscan Meal

Ingredients for a Tuscan Meal

Antipasto

The classic Tuscan appetiser, or starter, is antipasto misto which basically means ‘mixed’ and we tried more than a few of these. Affettati misti is a platter of salami and cured meats; prosciutto, capocollo, and my favourite, finocchiona a pork salami with fennel seeds which give a subtle aniseed taste to the meat. Wedges of strong Pecorino cheese and olives make this the perfect platter.

Tuscan food - Antipasto Misto

Tuscan food – Antipasto Misto

Crostini misti are little rounds of toast spread with a variety of pâté; chicken liver, mushrooms, tomatoes, and sometimes a truffle paste. Fettunta or bruschetta are toasted rounds of bread rubbed with a garlic clove, drizzled with extra-virgin olive oil, and sprinkled with coarse salt. The olives here are hand-picked – bruised olives make for a more acidic olive oil so they’re gently handled. Chopped tomatoes and basil leaves add the national colours to this tasty Tuscan starter. Hungry yet?

Tuscan food - Antipasto Misto

Tuscan food – Antipasto Misto at Fattoria Montecchio

Primi

Primi, or first course, usually consists of a pasta dish and what better way to appreciate this dish than to make it yourself.  We had a pasta-cooking lesson at Podere Torricella in Susan’s recently restored farmhouse with its rustic Tuscan kitchen. 

Our enthusiastic (and patient) chef Wilma showed us, step by step, the art of making delicious tortellini stuffed with spinach and ricotta followed by a rich vegetable stew with ribbons of spaghetti.  Tagliatelle al tartufo is pasta covered in a truffle (tartufo) sauce and definitely gives a plain pasta dish a really special flavour.

Homemade Tortellini parcels

Homemade Tortellini parcels

Ribollita

A thick, hearty vegetable Tuscan soup made with day-old bread and cannelloni beans was a revelation to me and utterly delicious. In fact, I had two helpings!  Meaning “reboiled,” Ribollita’s roots lie deep in Tuscany’s “Cucina Povera” and is a classic comfort food and definitely one I’ll be recreating at home.

Diced vegetables for Ribollita

Diced vegetables for Ribollita

Meats

Another Tuscan dish that was new to me was Wild Boar Stew – very tender and very tasty cooked in a rich tomato sauce.  Many roasted meats are popular in Tuscan cuisine, particularly wild game such as deer, pheasant or wild boar used for the main course, il secondo, or in sauces for pasta – full of depth and flavour.

Vegetables and Salads

There’s a saying in Tuscany, “Fritta è bona anche una ciabatta,” which means even a slipper is good deep-fried.  Not sure I’d agree but deep-frying is a Tuscan cuisine favourite and a great way to enjoy Tuscan vegetables is by ordering verdure fritte miste – deep-fried courgettes and artichokes which are best eaten piping hot.  Bang goes the diet.  The crispest, lightest I’ve ever tasted were at Villa Il Paganello.  Artichokes (carciofi), stuffed courgette flowers and Julienne of courgette and squash fritte were incredibly delicious.    Served with salad, primo sale cheese and ‘Quanta Cura,’ a delicious Tuscan red, it was a perfect meal in a perfect setting.  My idea of heaven actually…

Fritte Misto with Farro salad and Primo Sale cheese

Fritte Misto with Farro salad and Primo Sale cheese

 

View from Villa Il Paganello

View from Villa Il Paganello

The perfect way to finish a Tuscan meal is with Cantucci con Vin Santo.  Sometimes called biscotti,  the small, twice-baked, almond crescents are dunked into the sweet dessert wine Vin Santo to soften and taste absolutely divine.  They’re also pretty good with a cup of coffee.

Cantucci and Vin Santo

Cantucci and Vin Santo

So there you have some of the temptations of a Tuscan plate.  Have you sampled Tuscan cuisine and do you have a favourite dish?  Do share and let me know if I’ve teased your taste buds with this Tuscan cuisine.  Time now for a coffee and a cantucci or two I think….

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Tuscan cuisineFood in Tuscany

Disclosure:  Accommodation, meals and tours were sponsored by the Municipality of Tavarnelle Val di Pesa but all thoughts, opinions, and enthusiasm for the food of Tuscany are most definitely my own. My thanks to all the people of Tavarnelle who helped make the trip so enjoyable.  

 

Wine Tasting in Chianti, Tuscany

Wine Tasting in Chianti, Tuscany

It would be wrong to visit Tuscany’s wine region of Chianti in Italy without stopping off at a vineyard or two to sample Chianti Classico, the area’s most famous wine.

During our visit to the Chianti region we visited a variety of wine producers delivering exceptional wines. A brand new state-of-the-art winery, the oldest cellar in the region and a vineyard that’s experimenting with age-old wine production methods.  Join me on a mini tour of three of the best Chianti wineries.

Tuscan Vineyard

Tuscan Vineyard

 

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Eating Iceland

Eating Iceland

I believe you can learn a lot about a country, its people and its geography by the food that’s eaten there; the combination of flavours, the presentation and cooking methods used.  Getting to know a country’s cuisine and the excitement of discovering new flavours is all part of the journey.  Icelandic food was no exception. Here’s how I got on eating my way round Iceland…

I’d heard some pretty gruesome tales of what to expect and my taste buds arrived in Reykjavik with more than a little trepidation about the food I’d find on my plate. I’m happy to say I didn’t need the stash of chocolate Hobnobs I’d secreted in my case because Iceland served up some fabulous food.

What to eat in Iceland

So, what to eat in Iceland? Staple dishes include lamb, skyr, potatoes and fish – lots of fish. Iceland sits surrounded by chilly North Atlantic waters filled with cod, haddock, herring, halibut, skate, lobster, and salmon. The fish you’ll find on your plate in the evening was probably caught that morning.  Huge geothermal heated greenhouses produce fresh vegetables and the country’s environmental awareness means that the meat, fish and seafood is some of Europe’s healthiest.

Some of the traditional fare (vegetarians look away now) is not for the faint-hearted but don’t panic because restaurants in Reykjavik also serve a lot of what you’d find at home.  Here’s what Icelandic cuisine brings to the table both traditional and modern…

Icelandic Lamb

The lamb I ate in Iceland was beautiful, in fact the best I’ve ever tasted!  Fillet of lamb served with root vegetables, parsnip, and red wine sauce was delicious, melt-in-the-mouth tender and full of flavour. I’m salivating just thinking about it again.  Because Icelandic sheep roam freely in the highlands grazing on grass, plants and wild herbs the result of this idyllic life is a lean and tender meat full of flavour and devoid of hormones or pesticides. And its good to know they had a bit of lamby happiness before, well, you know…

Sheep’s Head In Iceland

Svið

Photo Credit Wikipedia

Here’s the heads up on Svið. A sheep’s head is singed to remove the wool, cut in half, de-brained, boiled and served with mashed root veg and then the lot devoured; including ears, eyes and tongue.  I’d have tried a bite or two had the opportunity had arisen. Fortunately it didn’t – ditto the ram’s testicles pressed into cakes and pickled. But these aren’t just quirky snacks; the way the whole of the lamb is used and preserved was born from necessity and the need to get through lean, freezing Icelandic winters.

Icelandic hot dog

I wasn’t going to leave Reykjavík without sampling their infamous hot dog.  Bæjarins beztu pylsur (the best hot dog in town) has served hot dogs since 1937 from a hut opposite the harbour in downtown Reykjavík.  They differ from your average dog in that they are made with lamb as well as pork and beef which gives them a slightly meatier flavour and a firmer texture.

The best way to eat them is ‘eina með öllu’ with everything. Which means your dog is loaded with two types of onion, crispy deep-fried and raw; ‘pylsusinnep’ a sweet brown mustard; ketchup and all finished off with remoulade, a mayonnaise mixed with finely chopped gherkin and caper.  This combination adds up to a whole lot of flavour.  I’m not a big fan of hot-dogs but had to try one to see if these really are the best hot dogs in the world. Verdict.  Probably because every time I passed that hut there was a queue. Personally I thought they were okay.  One hot dog costs 300 ISK so a good cheap lunch option on the go.

Icelandic Hot Dogs

Bæjarins beztu pylsur
Hot Dogs in Iceland

Fish dishes in Iceland

Icelandic fish is plentiful, fresh and delicious due to the abundant waters surrounding it. One of my favourite Icelandic fish dishes are deep-fried crispy cod balls. After biting through the light crisp batter the white, succulent cod is a wonderful contrast.  Other favourites were the more healthy foods like shrimps on open sandwiches of rye bread with a twist of lemon, delicately smoked trout or salmon and meaty monkfish.  All locally sourced and beautifully cooked.

Cured Shark

Iceland has its fishy dark side in the form of cured shark. The abundant Greenland shark is poisonous because of high levels of urea present in the flesh which, by the way, smells like ammonia.  Icelanders have come up with an ingenious way of making it eatable, although not necessarily palatable, and only slightly poisonous. So that’s nice. The meat is cured by burying it in sand for 6-12 weeks before hanging it to dry and ferment for four to five months. After this is done it’s called Hákarl, and is safe to eat. Yay! A small cube is swallowed and quickly washed down with a shot of Brennivín, Icelandic schnapps. Also known as Black Death Brennivin is made from fermented potatoes and caraway seedsDid I try it? Yes, but I skipped the shark course…

Brennivin, Icelandic Scnapps

Brennivin, Icelandic Scnapps

Alcohol in Iceland

Talking of alcohol, one of the top four lagers in Iceland is Gull which is made with Icelandic barley and water. Gull is sold in most bars and every state alcohol shop in Iceland. Beer was banned in Iceland from 1915 to 1st March 1989 so beer day, Bjórdagurinn, is celebrated on that day every year now. Gull is best served ice cold!  Alcohol is expensive so it’s worth picking up a duty-free bottle from your departure airport.

Gull Beer, Iceland

Skyr

Last up let me introduce you to skyr. Technically it’s a soft cheese, made from gelatinous milk curds which tastes like a mix of yoghurt and crème fraîche. It’s gorgeous was my food of choice for breakfast – fab with blueberries, muesli and dehydrated strawberries. The best bit though is that this super food is high in protein, rich in calcium and low carbs and fat so it’s actually good for you! Many UK supermarkets now sell Skyr.

Icelandic breakfast with skyr

Icelandic breakfast with skyr

That’s a little taster of some of the food I sampled. Icelandic food is fresh, interesting and absolutely delicious. Yes, there are some foods that may not appeal but you don’t know until you try them. Given the chance I’d have had a small taste of everything I’ve told you about here – even the fermented shark!  What’s the weirdest food you’ve ever tried and where did you eat it?

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icelandic food montage

Istanbul’s Sweetest Side

Istanbul’s Sweetest Side

I have something of a sweet tooth and adore anything sweet and sugary. Turkey didn’t disappoint when it came to sweet treats and confectionery, some of it too sweet even for me, and that’s a first…  The Spice Bazaar in Istanbul had stalls piled high with endless varieties of Turkish sweets and sugary scrumptiousness.

Sweets in Istanbul's Spice Bazaar

All sorts of varieties sold by this stall (below) note the Turkish Viagra right in the middle – also seen elsewhere labelled Ottoman Aphrodisiac!

Sweets in Istanbul's Spice Bazaar

Turkish Delight

Lokum, to use it’s Turkish name, has been produced since the 16th century and it’s basically made of solidified sugar and pectin.  Turkish Delight in Turkey is firmer than I’ve had in the UK, slightly more chewy and much subtler.  As well as the lemon and rosewater flavours there are dozens of variations on a theme; pistachio, almond, walnut, chocolate, ginger, clove and coconut to name but a few.  My particular favourite was pomegranate with pistachios.  Scrummy.

Baklava

Baklava is a highly syrupy pastry made with layers of phyllo (filo) pastry, chopped nuts, syrup, and cut into cubes. It comes with a variety of luscious fillings, such as pistachio, hazelnuts and almonds.  There’s also Kunefe, a ‘shredded wheat’ variety, of Baklava which looks like little bird nests or rolls stuffed with nuts and other goodies.  Are your fillings screaming yet?

Baklava Pyramid, Istanbul

There are many confectioners in The Sultanahmet where you can try different varieties of Turkish Delight before having a box made up of favourites.  Prices ranged from 38TL – 68TL per kilo and boxes could be bought in various sizes from a quarter to 1 kilo.  And, in case you’re wondering, they did all make it home to friends and family!

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istanbul-sweets

The Perfect Turkish Breakfast

The Perfect Turkish Breakfast

The Turkish word for breakfast is kahvaltı, which translates as under-coffee, or food eaten before drinking coffee. Therefore, a traditional Turkish breakfast starts with tea and ends with a cup of coffee. The feast between the two can include bread, butter, olives, salads, yoghurt, cold meats, fruit juice jams, honey and eggs. Hungry yet?  All the breakfasts we ate in Turkey were excellent but the one we had in King’s Valley was the best. Ever.

Turkish Breakfast Table

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