That Particular, Precious Ingredient

Travel Diary – 21 July 2014

As I travelled by train from Sondrio to Malpensa airport I reflected on the holiday that was ending and on what seemed to have been the most recurring topic of conversation during my stay: food, Italy’s national obsession. The first day of the holiday my husband and myself arrived at the beach in Pesaro to ‘Bagni Bibi’ a place my friends rent every summer along with umbrella and deck chairs. There is also a bar with veranda, changing huts and showers which makes it a very civilized beach-bums kind of experience, the very opposite to the Irish style: wind-swept and cold where very brave people go armed with just an all-purpose towel to use after a fast dip-and-freeze swim. Here at the Bagni we were warmly greeted by the group of local regulars who recognized us as ‘the Irish who come back every year’ making me feel foreign in my own country but then, after taking a look at my white sun-starved skin, who could blame them for bunching me up with the North Europeans?

As we were creaming up before going for a walk along the shore I could hear them exchanging tips on the best way to grill vegetables while just a few metres away two people, standing knee-deep in water were discussing tomatoes “so you slice them across first and then you fill them with…” with what I’ll never know because the wind carried away that particular, precious ingredient. A woman wearing a bright colourful swimsuit was walking fast talking loudly on her mobile “In the oven” she shouted “You put them in the oven!” Who? What? Another lost opportunity!

Solitary men and women were walking slowly in the shallow water, head bent staring into the sand looking for clams which, once found, where stored in a plastic bag that they were carrying for that purpose. Later on at home they’d use the clams to make a quick savoury sauce for a lunchtime spaghetti dish. One morning my friend Bruna announced that she was going to pick up vegetables at Maria and Augusto’s place because once a week the couple prepare bags of goodies full with the product of their hard work in the much loved vegetable plot. Would I go with her? Sure.

Maria and Augusto's gift

Maria and Augusto’s gift

The plot turned out to be a huge field entirely cultivated with vegetables of all sorts, which Maria and Augusto divvy out amongst relatives and friends for free.“Let me do the cooking ” I insisted not wanting Maria to cook as well as providing the food. “How are you going to make them?” she asked suspiciously. “In my mamma’s style” I said not wanting to compete with the local recipe. She smiled politely but a worried shadow crossed her face. At the dinner they appreciated my roast (or so they said) but Maria could not refrain from declaring that the local recipe, which involves the use of wild fennel was surely the best. “You can’t beat it!” she declared.  “And how do you cook it?” I asked to please her.


You need a rabbit cut into pieces including liver and kidneys, white wine, 200g streaky rashers finely sliced, olive oil, wild fennel, garlic, rosemary and sage, salt and pepper. Put the rabbit pieces into a bowl and cover with white wine for a couple of hours and then drain. Put a couple of spoons olive oil on the bottom of a roasting pan and cover with slices of bacon.  Arrange the pieces of rabbit on the bacon, including liver and kidneys; spread the herbs and garlic roughly chopped on the meat, season with salt and pepper and some more oil. Cover the rabbit with another layer of bacon. Seal the pan over with aluminium foil and put it in the oven gas mark 7 or 220C for about 1 hour. Remove the foil and let brown well. Serve with roast potatoes.  Once started on the sharing of recipes there was no stopping it. Two hours went by and during that time many topics were covered: how to marinate olives, how to make a special cake called crostata, what to do with an excess of plums, of courgettes, of tomatoes, what’s the best way to fry sage leaves which, by the way are delicious.


For this preparation you need 20g big green and healthy looking fresh sage leaves with stalk, 100g white flour, 125ml beer or sparkling water, 1 egg, salt and oil for frying. Put the flour in a bowl and mix in the egg. Add the beer or the sparkling water (either must be very cold from the fridge) and mix well. Add the salt and keep mixing until smooth. Cover the bowl with a tea towel and let rest for a while. Wash and pat dry the sage leaves. Heat up the oil in the frying pan. Dip the sage leaves one by one in the mixture holding them by the stalk and fry until golden. Drain and arrange on a serving dish covered with paper towel, season with salt and serve hot.

Little Maia enjoying a slice of watermelon

Little Maia enjoying a slice of watermelon

Over the next two weeks we gorged on ice cream, watermelons and succulent peaches. Our friend Irene joined us from Modena and every night we either cooked for a small crowd (but everybody also brought something special to share) or we were invited to eat with a crowd. On the last evening we walked up to the village to join the locals in a fund-raising event to help a young woman go to Peru for a month to work with a small community there. The event, needless to say, was a dinner, a 3 course meal for roughly 100 people cooked by the local women in the village hall for the amazing sum of €12, wine included.

The fundraising eating event in the village hall

The fundraising eating event in the village hall

At the end of the week my husband returned to Ireland and I took the train north to join my cousins in the Alps in our mothers’ village. Here the menu changed drastically in content but not in quality. As soon as I arrived I was informed that the mirtilli, a local variety of blueberries, had been spotted in a valley nearby and, without delay, we set off armed with baskets after promising our cousin Edilio that we would be back the following day with a cake. All he would have to do was to brew the tea.


Make a shortcut pastry mixing 150g white flour and 150g corn flour (the type used for polenta), 120g unsalted butter, 1 yolk, 100g sugar, 1 teaspoon baking powder. Cool it in the fridge for 20min and then roll out. Line a cake tin with the pastry and spread a layer of blueberry jam on top.  Mix 60g butter with 60g of sugar and 1 egg; add 150g of white and buckwheat flower in equal measure mixed together and blend into the mixture. Pour the mixture over the pastry and the jam. Bake for 40min in the oven, gas mark 5 or 180C. When the cake has cooled sprinkle with icing sugar. Once the mirtilli-picking task was done and dusted, it was the turn of wild mushrooms picking; a much harder task because the competition from other mushroom gatherers was fierce. One morning we spent four hours scouring the side of the mountain, climbing a steep slope with no paths, trying to keep upright while looking at the ground and keep loosely together so as not to get lost in the thick of the forest. I didn’t mind much about finding the mushrooms because just being there amongst the pines and chestnut trees and hearing the sound of the birds and the stream running by was enough reward. The smell of the forest was invigorating and the solitude precious to the point that I was even enjoying the tiredness, the aching legs and the sweat. My body was alive, all my senses were alert and the three mushrooms I found were well worth the effort. We ate them the following day in a risotto dish.


300 g fresh porcini mushrooms cleaned but not washed (or 25g dried previously soaked in warm water), 2 medium garlic cloves crushed, 1 small yellow onion thinly sliced, 4 big handfuls risotto rice (1 handful per person plus 2 for the pot), olive oil, butter, small pot of broth (vegetable or meat), splash of red wine, salt to taste. In a small pot heat your broth and keep simmering on low.  In a pan, heat 2 tablespoon olive oil with the crushed garlic cloves until the garlic is fragrant and starts to become golden. Remove the garlic cloves. Keeping oil on medium heat, add the sliced mushrooms. Add a splash of wine and a sprinkle of salt and cook on a low flame until the mushrooms darken and the liquid mostly evaporates. This should take around 6 minutes.Turn off heat and set aside. Some cook the rice and mushrooms together. In a low saucepan or large pan, heat 3 tablespoon olive oil, and then add sliced onions and cook until softened. Add the rice and toast until fragrant, and then add half a glass of wine. Using a ladle, add broth until the rice is well moistened and almost covered with liquid. Start stirring with a wooden spoon, and keep stirring until it is ready to serve.  Whenever the risotto starts to dry out, add another ladle or two of broth. After about 10min add the cooked porcini mushrooms. Cook until the risotto is ‘al dente’, tender, but with some almost crunchy firmness, and salt to taste. Before serving you will want to do the ‘mantecatura’, which is to stir in a knot of butter. This creates a beautiful creamy texture. You can also stir in a handful or two of chopped parsley at this point. Serve hot, top with freshly grated parmesan.

At the end of each day as the sun gloriously set behind the mountain tops, clouds would gather quickly and a storm would break out with an abundance of rain that drove the locals mad because you are not meant to have so many summer storms in July! Their dramatic outbursts only added to the one being played over the valley. In vain I tried to point out the beauty of all those layers of greys, to teach them to admire their subtleties, something I said to them that living in Ireland taught me to appreciate. They weren’t having any of it. So we would resort to playing cards in the kitchen, whoever lost would pay the coffees next morning at the bar where all the cousins would gather to exchange the news of the day and… recipes.

Who's buying the coffee?

Who’s buying the coffee?

Looking back I found that I spent that week in the mountains looking at the mountains for hours on end, enjoying the nightly storms, walking in the forests, driving to refuges and alpine passes. Yet the most challenging and rewarding day came towards the end of the week when I went on a hard trek up to San Stefano’s dams at 2,000mt above sea level.

My cousin Vanda and myself set out early in the morning and slowly but steadily negotiated the three-hour climb until we reached the first dam, which was shrouded in mist. From there we walked to the shepherds’ hut and sat down to exchange a few words with them and to catch our breath. They had just finished making the cheese of the day and the room smelled pleasantly of fresh milk. Having rested enough we decided to continue and to go see the glacier taking the path along the side of the mountain. When we arrived at our destination we finally sat on the bench and looked at the glacier in all its majesty both of us speechless. Only after a long while I took out of my rucksack the very special panino I had prepared early that morning. I ate it with great gusto and flushed it down with gulps of crystal clear water from the stream.

Cheese making at 2,000 metres above sea level

Cheese making at 2,000 metres above sea level

Panino to eat while looking at a glacier

I used a soft, bap-like rye bread cut in two halves. I coated one side with some mayonnaise and topped it with tuna and quarters of artichoke hearts under oil and covered it with the other half of bread.  It is my favourite panino ever! 20140719_113728