Olive Juice

Did you know that olive oil is the only common cooking oil that is the juice of a fruit? All the other oils we use in our kitchen come from seeds: sunflower, rapeseed (canola), peanut and grapeseed. This realisation leads directly to another question. Would you cut an orange, leave it on the counter for a week and then squeeze and drink the juice? Would you step on an apple, leave it on the table for three days and then eat it? Yet that’s what happens to many olives before they’re pressed to extract olive juice.

Can you taste tomatoes?

Can you taste tomatoes?

I’ve tasted and written a lot about olive oil, but this idea had completely escaped me until I met Elisabetta Sebastio last year. She’s a professional olive oil taster both for Italian Chambers of Commerce and international olive oil competitions. We ran our first full-day olive oil class during my Autumn in Tuscany tour in November. It was a revelation for all of us.

Learn more on the Slow Travel Tours website: http://slowtraveltours.com/blog/olive-juice/

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Seasonal Eating: Cardoons Revisited

In England when I used to prepare historical feasts for Christopher Hogwood and the Academy of Ancient Music, I pined futilely for a cardoon farmer. Cardoons cropped up regularly in recipes of the 17th and 18th centuries. I finally persuaded a friend to grow them on his allotment, but he planted them next to his artichokes, which are nearly identical, and couldn’t remember which was which. In culinary terms it matters; you eat the flower of an artichoke, but the stem of a cardoon. I can’t find any advice on what would happen if you ate the stem of an artichoke, and I didn’t try.

These are definitely artichokes (photo: Marion Edwards)

These are definitely artichokes (photo: Marion Edwards)

Cardoons are common in Italian shops and markets from November to February. Although they are completely unrelated, they look like giant celery but surprise with a flavour of artichoke hearts. The heads come in two shapes, depending on how they’re grown: straight stalks which are called cardi, and curved ones called gobbi. Gobbo means ‘hunchback’, and touching an amulet of a gobbo is said to bring good fortune. Whichever the shape, the cultivation and preparation of cardoons is fiddly. During their last month in the field, the stems are blanched like celery, by piling up the earth or tying straw or paper around them so they lose their chlorophyl and become creamy white. If you’re growing them gobbo-style, you bend them in half before covering them with soil.

Cardoons at Cinzia's market stall (Formoli, Bagni di Lucca)

Cardoons at Cinzia’s market stall (Formoli, Bagni di Lucca)

In the kitchen you de-string them, cut them into chunks and boil them in acidulated water to keep them from rusting. They’re good eaten hot simply with a drizzle of this year’s extra-virgin olive oil. In the Abruzzo a traditional Christmas lunch begins with a soup of cardoons and meatballs.

I’ve recently tried a Lucchese recipe for using up leftover bollito (boiled beef): infuse olive oil with garlic and sage leaves over a low heat, add chunks of boiled cardoons and sauté until they start to brown, add the boiled beef cut into cubes, stir well, deglaze the pan with white wine, add a few tinned tomatoes (not tasteless winter tomatoes) and simmer for 15 minutes. As long as you go light on the tomatoes, the flavours balance each other perfectly.

Cardoon in typical Lucca dish

Lesso rifatto con cardoni (boiled meat redone with cardoons)

Nutritionally cardoons are star players. They are said to have a fortifying and bracing effect on the stomach, protect the liver, reduce cholesterol and blood sugar levels. Who knows, maybe they’re the elixir of youth.

There’s an old variety called cardo gobbo of Nizza Monferrato from the province of Asti in Piedmont. Being on the brink of disappearance, Slow Food has recognised it as a presidium. It grows on sandy soil with no fertilisers, chemical treatments or irrigation. Sown in May, by September the tall luxuriant stalks are ready to be bent over and covered with soil. The Slow Food website describes the plant dramatically attempting to liberate itself to get to the light. In the process of its struggles, it swells up and turns pure white. Once harvested and cleaned, it’s the only cardoon that can be eaten raw, and is an indispensable ingredient of bagna cauda, the typical Piemontese warm sauce based on garlic, extra-virgin olive oil and anchovies. Continuing the purple prose, ‘It’s not merely a dish but a convivial ritual.  Simmering in the centre of the table in an earthware terrine, the diners dip the pieces of vegetable and bring them to their mouths, catching the oil on a chunk of bread.’ If you’ll excuse me, I’m off to Nizza Monferrato right now.

Postscript: Some ingredients draw me to repeated research. I had written this piece before discovering that I also wrote about cardoons in January 2013: http://www.sapori-e-saperi.com/seasonal-eating-4-cardoons-2/

Posted in artichokes, cardoon, VEGETABLES | 4 Comments

Seasonal Eating 2

At the fruttivendola (fruit and veg shop) in La Villa, Bagni di Lucca, last week, I found the first signs of spring vegetables. Among them were carciofi mamme, or mamma’s artichokes. They’re bigger and more rotund than the pointy petite winter ones. The mamme don’t have spines at the tips of the leaves to draw blood if you’re not careful while preparing them.

Mamma's artichokes are fat and gentle

In fact, they resemble the globe artichokes we get in England during the summer, which I usually boil and eat dipped in melted butter. I’d never cooked them in Italy and I could have found a recipe on the internet when I got home, but it wouldn’t have told me how people prepare it here where I live. I always ask the person I’m buying from; they invariably know how to cook what they’re selling, and love to describe it to you. One of the many advantages of small shops over supermarkets. This one was simple.

Assembling the stuffing

Break off some of the outer leaves. Cut the stem off even with the base so it will sit in a saucepan. Peel the stringy outer part off the stems. Make a stuffing from a little stale bread softened in water and crumbled by hand, some finely chopped pancetta, the peeled stems, parsley and garlic. The quantities are up to you. Open out the leaves and use a teaspoon to remove the choke from the centre if there is one. Press the stuffing into the centre and between the individual leaves. Heat some extra-virgin olive oil in a saucepan into which the stuffed artichokes will just fit and put them in bottoms down. Brown the bottoms for about 5 minutes. Pour in a glass of white wine and boil until the alcohol has evaporated. Add boiling water to come halfway up the artichokes, cover and simmer for about 45 minutes until tender. Remove the lid, raise the heat and boil until the liquid has reduced to form a good flavoured sauce. Allow to cool a bit before serving so they can be eaten with your fingers. Use some crusty country bread to mop up the sauce. Messy but full of beautifully blended flavours.

Stuffed Mamma's artichoke alla Bagni di Lucca

Break off a leaf and some stuffing and scrape the artichoke flesh off the leaf with your lower teeth

Try it yourself, but please, please wait until globe artichokes are in season near you. It takes some time to prepare and won’t be worth the effort if the artichokes have been flown halfway round the world and then kept in a warehouse for a week and in the supermarket for another week. If no one cultivates artichokes near you, don’t bother. Cook something else.

Posted in artichokes, carciofi, COOKING, SHOPPING, VEGETABLES | 10 Comments