Thursday, 15 September 2011

Love and food in the Appennines

Casa Barile
The road to the house, in Tuscany's wild and wonderful Garfagnana, is a heart-stopping series of steep, hairpin bends, with an occasional widening to provide sanctuary from oncoming vehicles hurtling towards you with confident and complete ownership of the narrow ribbon of tarmac. On one side the rockface towers high above, on the other, the road drops away into a wooded cliff down to the river, with some stretches offering the comfort of battered metal railings. The road is the only route in or out for a dozen or so villages, smallholdings and an agriturismo, so as well as cars of various size and age,  you are likely to meet the local bus, forestry lorries and buzzing scooter drivers convinced of their own immortality. 

Thus it is with a mixture of anticipation and trepidation, (and a dash of satisfaction at identifying a new route around the challenging ramparts of Lucca) that we embark on the last leg of the journey from Pisa Airport. We turn off the main road, the junction made even narrower by two men with a lorry rebuilding the retaining wall, cross the slim bridge over the Serchio River, bump over the railway track, negotiate the parked car and dozing dog outside Claudio's bar and begin the ascent.

Jointly swearing to pay the extra money for automatic transmission next time, we negotiate into the steeply curving  drive, through the iron gates,  past the vines dripping with grapes and park by the house, its solid stone walls and red-tiled roofs as lovely as we remember. We unpack only to locate swimsuits, click the automatic pool cover and sink into cool, welcoming water just as the sun dips down behind the mountains, turning the sky to rose and lavender.

Sunset in the Garfagnana

Warm welcome
Natalina's basket
The afternoon after we arrive,  a car sweeps up the driveway, unannounced. Out bustles Natalina, with husband Bruno, welcoming us back in non-stop Italian and kissing us exuberantly on both cheeks, before handing over a large basket filled to the brim with five varieties of tomato, nine eggs laid that day,  bunches of small, sweet grapes and a bunch of basil large enough for a bridal bouquet.

Assuring us that Natalina would come as agreed in a week's time to clean the house, the pair then disappear back down the drive in a flurry of dust.

The previous year's visit had been somewhat marred by breaking my right wrist on the very first morning. Now I am looking forward to able bodied enjoyment of the house.  One of its main attractions, apart from the high ceilinged rooms, the swimming pool and choice of terraces, is the kitchen, which runs the full width of the house with windows on three sides taking in the wonderful views.
A sink with a view

Just as well, I ponder, surveying the bounty delivered by Natalina, knowing that the fridge is already full of fruit and vegetables purchased that morning. The tiny cherry tomatoes strung like jewels on their long branches are deliciously sweet and thin skinned,  as easy to eat as sweeties.

But now was clearly the time to make all those recipes which call for full blooded, red-all-the-way-through, lumpy but fragrant tomatoes. In other words, the tomatoes you get when you grow them yourself and the weather is kind. Or Natalina calls by with a basketful.

Sweet intensity
Roasted tomatoes
Skin large tomatoes, slice in half around their middles and arrange on an oiled roasting tin, close but not touching. Trickle oil over each half, grind on some salt and black pepper, sprinkle with a little crushed garlic and top with a basil leaf oiled on both sides. Pop into a hot oven and roast until soft and blackening around the edges. Serve warm or cold with plenty of crusty bread to mop up the juices. (If any get too pulpy, just add them to a tomato sauce, stir into pasta, add to roasted vegetables......)

Pure and simple tomato sauce
Skin and roughly chop about a kilo of ripe tomatoes (if using up some of the cherry variety don't bother to skin) whilst a couple of chopped, large, red onions are cooking gently in olive oil in a large pan. Add some crushed garlic and stir for a couple of minutes before pouring in the tomatoes followed by salt, pepper and if you wish, some organo.  Leave to simmer gently whilst you have a glass of wine on the terrace, empty the dishwasher, catch up with emails or whatever until the sauce becomes thick, fragrant and full of natural sweetness. (Check every now and then, especially if you go for the glass of wine option, to make sure the sauce is not sticking to the pan.)

Keep in the fridge and use in all sorts of ways, on top of bruschetta (although Italians insist that the tomatoes should be chopped and raw), stirred into pasta, added to roasted aubergines and courgettes,  transform left over cooked chicken with a handful of olives......

Don't forget to check the sauce....

No comments:

Post a Comment