Take a trip to Istria

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You probably wouldn’t associate fresh pasta, prosciutto, truffles and seafood carpaccio with Croatia. Particularly in Istria, a point shaped peninsula in the north Adriatic Sea, there’s endless resemblances with Italian food culture, in its own unique way.

History has played an important role in the creation of Istria’s eclectic culture. Romans left their mark with beautiful buildings such as the perfectly preserved Arena in Pula inspired by the Colosseum. Venetians strongly influenced the architecture, dialects and food of the whole region with the stunning town of Rovinj standing as a scale version of Venice with its Sant’Eufemia church bell tower. The whole area was under the Asburgic Empire for centuries until Italians took over after WWI, only to loose it after WWII when the Socialist Yugoslavia adventure of Tito began. It was only recently in 1991 that Croatia was declared independent.

Today this strong cultural diversity and richness is being translated into amazing restaurants and top quality foods – making Istria an exciting gourmet destination. Perhaps because you get the best of both worlds, Mediterranean dishes like fresh pasta with scampi and tomato, or continental recipes such as potato gnocchi with goulash.

In addition, its Mediterranean climate makes it an agriculture heaven. Until very recently one wouldn’t have this area on their radar when thinking of extra virgin olive oils. Some of the world’s top quality EVOOs are produced here and many producers are receiving important recognitions and prizes. You can for instance check out the unbeatable Chiavalon http://www.chiavalon.hr/ or Mate http://www.mateoliveoil.com/.

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Really amazing wines are hitting the market as well, make sure to try Giorgio Clai’s creations (http://www.clai.hr/), honest wines containing just grapes and nothing else, an incredible representation of Istria’s terroir.

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And it keeps coming. Together with Italy and France, Istria is possibly the only other place on the planet where white truffles of the Tuber Magnatum Pico variety can be found: enough to make it your destination for the end of October.

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And shall we talk about cheeses? The goat being the symbol of this region, it’s no wonder we discovered the best goat’s cheese producer ever. Ales’s fresh and aged cheeses are praised by chefs worldwide. Year round his herd of 250 rustic goats – a maximum he does not want to exceed – grazes freely on 250 hectars of land. Any bigger herd would make the process of milking more industrialised, and that’s not where Ales wants to go. You need to pay a visit to his beautiful farm (http://www.kumparicka.com/ ) to purchase his unique hard to get cheeses.

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And don’t miss out on the flourishing restaurant scene. Chef David Skoko in Batelina (https://www.facebook.com/pages/Batelina/202005836507281) comes from a fishermen family and serves his daily catch from boat to plate. He is also experimenting with local algae and sea plants, a soon to come addition to his menu. Stari Podrum instead (http://www.staripodrum.info/it/momjan.html) is where we suggest you go for a more continental feel, it’s great for meats and vegetables and the perfect spot for truffles when in season.  If you’re looking for the fine dining experience check out the first Michelin star restaurant in Croatia, Il Monte (http://www.monte.hr/) in Rovigno.

Think of Istria next time you plan a foodie trip to Europe, you will get a lot out of this region of the beaten track.

 

 

Get those Meatballs rollin’

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Did you celebrate national meatball day this year? Read on to discover how Italians love their meatballs and get your fix with a simple recipe!

In Italy we call them polpette, a staple dish across the peninsula, cooked in different variations depending where you are. The two main categories are fritte (deep fried) or in umido (braised). Fritte are very common in the north, and are eaten as a fun finger food, tapas style during aperitivo. They are bite size delicacies hard to resist, perfect with a glass of bubbly. In umido are braised, either in a white wine sauce or in tomato salsa. This dish is served as a secondo, the course that comes after primo (usually pasta) and before dolce (dessert).

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Spaghetti meatballs as we know them in the US, are actually not that common in Italy. In the southern regions there are some pasta dishes with polpettine – very small meatballs and tomato sauce, but it is definitely not something Italians consider a staple dish. Its invention can be attributed to the fascinating cultural exchange that occurred between 1881 and 1901 when more than 2.400.000 Italians migrated to the USA. You have to imagine that in those days Italy was a very poor country; people were used to eating from the land and would barely have access to meat. Italian migrants in the new world found plentiful land and an abundance of meat. They basically re-invented their cuisine recalling that of festivities and celebrations – adding more meat, cheese and sauce to dishes. This is how we believe the iconic dish Spaghetti Meatballs was invented. A great example of how cultural exchange and immigrant communities can give birth to beautiful and delicious things 🙂

Polpette fritte recipe:
Ingredients
¼ pound ground beef
¼ pound ground pork
1 egg
2 slices stale bread
½ cup milk
1 bunch mixed fresh herbs (rosemary, thyme, marjoram, basil, sage, chives…)
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon pepper
½ cup all purpose flour
1 bottle frying oil (peanut is the best)
coarse sea salt to taste

Method
Tear the bread and soak it in the milk. Once all milk is absorbed add all other ingredients except the flour, oil and coarse salt. Mix well to get a uniform mixture. Place the flour into a flat plate. Shape a tablespoon worth of mixture into a ball shape, roll into the flour and set aside. Repeat for all. Heat the oil, test it with a piece of meatball and make sure it sizzles, don’t let it smoke. Gently fry all meatballs, once ready place them onto an absorbent sheet of paper to drain any excess oil. Sprinkle with some coarse sea salt and serve.

Buon appetito!

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Good morning, its coffee time

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Did you know coffee is the second most consumed drink after water? More than 2 billion cups per day are enjoyed in every corner of the world – served and brewed according to different cultures and traditions.

Italians love their coffee in two specific ways: espresso and moka. When out in bars and restaurants, the espresso machine rules – it is very uncommon to find filter coffee in Italy! Often espresso is ordered standing at the bar and drunk very fast similarly to a shot. The variations of this drink are endless: caffè nero, caffè lungo, caffè macchiato, cappuccino, caffelatte, caffè ristretto, marocchino, caffè corretto (with grappa!), goccia, caffè shakerato, americano, caffè schiumato, caffè doppio, caffè chiaro… the list keeps going, there are about 50 kinds – being a barista in Italy definitely requires some skills!

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The moka is the home version of an espresso, this simple percolator gives a concentrated dark brew somewhat a cross between an espresso and a filter coffee.

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Coffee just like chocolate, bananas or tea are often taken for granted. They have become staples in our everyday lives even though they originate and grow in few specific areas of the world. The coffee trees are native to east Africa, today production extends over the so called coffee belt (Central and South America, Africa and South Asia). And believe it or not, the biggest consumer of coffee is Finland – very far from the tree’s natural habitat.

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Coffee is grown and dried in its origin countries, the green beans are then exported, roasted, ground and brewed. A fascinating and long cycle that requires expertise and skills. Buying fair trade coffee is a great opportunity to ensure every party that has been involved in the production chain got a fair deal. Whilst sipping on your coffee this morning, no matter how it’s brewed, think of the marvellous journey your beans have undertaken to get to your cup.

 

It’s Aperitivo time!

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Aperitivo is a wonderful custom, enjoyed and practiced all across Italy. It’s the perfect way to leave behind a long day and relax having a glass of wine or a light cocktail in good company. The word  defines the act as well as the actual drink – cocktails such as Negroni and Spritz, thought to entice your appetite. Aperitivo is often accompanied by snacks ranging from cheese and charcuterie to more elaborated finger food, such as tartine (similar to bruschetta), polpette (meatballs), fried zucchini flowers stuffed with mozzarella and anchovies or seafood tartare. Just a few examples of the colorful range of delicacies you can enjoy.

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It’s origin is linked to the city Torino, where the first Vermouths (fortified wines) were prodcuced, think Carpani, Martini, Cinzano. Today aperitivo rhymes with Milano – the town flows with different kinds of bar concepts for all tastes.

The choice can be overwhelming –  here are a few tips on places to visit on a short trip:
If wine is what you are looking for, hands down this hidden cellar is a must http://www.alcortile.com/. Getting to it is an adventure  – you need to ring the bell, enter a gate, walk through a private alley and down the stairs to this ancient cellar, don’t get it mixed up with the upstairs restaurant and cooking school.
The most incredible and eclectic cocktail bar of all must be Nottingham Forest http://www.nottingham-forest.com/ , where you can sip your libations out of an All Star shoe cup, or order an extravagant cocktail containing pure gold and real pearls or experiment new frontiers of texture and aesthetics with molecular mixology.
In the fancy area of Brera you can savour an fine Japanese style aperitivo at Sushi B http://www.sushi-b.it/ and Lacerba’s http://www.lacerba.it/  charming and futuristic decor makes for a  memorable experience.

Cin cin!

Chocolate.. to the source

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It’s hard to imagine a better way to finish a meal than with chocolate. With incredibly unique characteristics it’s one of the most loved and consumed foods worldwide. At room temperature the consistency is hard and dry but it melts as soon as it touches our tongue meeting our body temperature. It can be moulded into any kind of shape and can be made to shine as a mirror. Not many foods offer such a sensorial experience, capable of creating strong desire, comparable to addiction, particularly in women (this is probably due to theobromine, caffeine and a tiny percentage of cannabinoids). It is said to improve cardiovascular health thanks to the presence of flavonoids and has become a symbol of romance, thought to be a great aphrodisiac… There is no doubt – eating chocolate is indeed a pleasure linked to senses.

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The cocoa tree, that grows more or less between the 10° north parallel and the 10° south parallel, evolved in Southern America’s equatorial valleys. The Aztecs and the Mayas were possibly the first to try it, consuming it as a bitter drink with the addition of spices. It was the Spaniards that first paired it with sugar and eliminated most of the spices, bringing this exotic new food back to Europe in the 16th century. It remained a luxurious and uncommon drink until the 1800, when a series of innovations (mostly Swiss) contributed to the creation of chocolate as we know it today – produced industrially and accessible for all.

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Nowadays cocoa is produced in West Africa and Asia as well as in Central and South America. Farmers are mostly small – less then 3 hectare properties – but transformers are huge; main players are in Holland, Germany and the US. Most of the cocoa produced worldwide is treated as a commodity and bought by the biggest industrial brands.

img_3866Nonetheless lately specialty chocolatiers that buy the cocoa directly from producers have grown in numbers, buying either the dried beans or the final product. In some cases the farmers are also the transformers. Basically when the beans are mature you extract the seed, ferment it, dry it and finally roast it. These must then be ground, conched and tempered before being moulded into bars, a long process that requires expertise and attention to detail to guarantee a top quality final product.

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More and more, small chocolate processers around the world are starting to treat cocoa just like you would wine, searching for specific varietals, appreciating the origin as well as the steps of production. Nothing is added except for cocoa and sugar. This gave birth to a completely new way of tasting and consuming chocolate, for example paired with wine and distilled liquors or used for cooking, to appreciate all its flavors and aromas.

We have two great bean to bar chocolate makers in Atlanta, Cacao Atlanta www.cacaoatlanta.com and XOCOLATL www.xocolatlchocolate.com. Check them out and indulge in pure ethically sourced chocolate this Valentine’s day!

 

 

All the colors of Pasta

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Next time you make your own fresh pasta at home why not experiment with different natural colorants? Seasons have so many ingredients to pick from and eating seasonal is the best excuse to get creative and cook with what’s available. Right now during winter you can get plenty of vitamins, fibres and antioxidants from veggies such as beetroot, which will turn your pasta pink or purple, and fresh spinach if you want it to turn green. In summer try with tomatoes or basil! Squid ink – which can be sourced year-round – will turn your dough charcoal black, cocoa powder a nice earthy brown, while turmeric and saffron bright yellow. It’s fun, gets kids excited about a healthy meal and can be the next trick to impress your guests at a dinner party. Start out with your classic fresh pasta recipe and add the following proportions:

  • Beetroot, spinach, tomato: ½ ounce every 100g flour (For the vegetables boil until soft, squeeze out the extra water, blend and weigh)
  • Cocoa, turmeric: 0,2 ounce every 100g flour
  • Squid ink: if fresh, one bladder is more than enough every 200g of flour. You can also find it dehydrated in powder (use same proportions as cocoa)
  • Saffron: A pinch of pistils diluted in a few drops of warm water every 100g flour

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Need a refresh to our fresh pasta recipe?
Yield: 6 people

Ingredients
Unbleached, unenriched semolina flour, 200 g (approx. 7 ounces)
Unbleached, unenriched white wheat flour (cake flour), 0 type, 200 g (approx. 7 ounces)
Large pasture raised eggs (280 g) 4

Method
On a clean surface, make a pile out of flour and form a deep well in center. Break the eggs into the well and add colorant. Whisk eggs very gently with a fork, gradually incorporating flour from the sides of the well. When mixture becomes too thick to mix with a fork, begin kneading using your hands. If flour does not fully incorporate into the dough add one or two tablespoons of water. (Be careful not to add too much!) In the case of beetroot, spinach and tomato the opposite may occur, you can add a little semolina flour if the dough is too sticky.

Dough is very sticky at the beginning and becomes more elastic and smooth after around 4 minutes of kneading. Once the dough is formed, continue kneading for 3 more minutes to allow the dough to reach its maximum elasticity and firmness. Long kneading is important in order to develop the gluten in the flour and to prevent dough from tearing apart later on. Dust work surface with flour if needed to keep dough from becoming sticky. Roll dough into a ball shape and wrap tightly in plastic wrap and let rest for 20-30 minutes.

The traditional way of rolling out the pasta is by using a simple wood rolling pin, so even if you don’t have a pasta machine don’t be intimidated to make fresh pasta at home. Dust working surface with flour and start rolling dough one piece at a time. After every roll, make a quarter turn and repeat the same movement until you have achieved the desired thickness. (Approximately the thickness of a playing card). After achieving the desired thickness of the dough, start cutting the pasta into desired shape. Make sure to dust dough on both sides so it doesn’t stick to itself.

Buon appetito!

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Take a trip to Sicily

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An island in the heart of the Mediterranean with breathtaking landscapes ranging from crystal clear beaches to steep vineyards on rumbling volcano Etna. Walking down a street you can see a Greek temple next to an elegant Roman villa, facing a Norman-Arabic cathedral behind a Baroque sumptuous palace.

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Sicily is such a crossroad of many diverse cultures, that left their mark over time developing a magical kaleidoscopic region filled with contrasting beauty. A diversity deeply reflected in Sicily’s picturesque cuisine, a foodie mecca of bizarre traditions, colorful markets and mouthwatering delicacies. Probably the most evolved street food culture in the whole of Italy; make sure you try “arancini” (rice balls stuffed with ragù, peas and mozzarella), or fresh artichokes charred on a steaming barbecue. And don’t forget “scaccia” (stuffed pastry with eggplant, tomato, onion, ricotta and sausage), “stigghiola” (grilled lamb tripe), “pane e panelle” (fried chickpea dough), “pane ca meuza” (small soft buns filled with stewed spleen and lung…we recommend them at Antica Focacceria San Francesco (Via Alessandro Paternostro 58, Palermo).

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To accompany this outstanding plethora of foods there’s some of the best wines in Italy, ranging from big round reds to fresh mineral whites grown on Etna’s black soil. A rich and comforting sweets heritage roots back to the Arabic populations which used to live here. “Cannoli” (fried pastry filled with fresh ricotta) are to die for and be careful not to get addicted to the hand crafted marzipan from Erice: having them at Maria Grammatico (Via Vittorio Emanuele 14, Erice, Trapani) is the real deal. Another cornerstone is the “Cassata”, a baroque and rich colorful masterpiece made with sponge cake, candied fruit, ricotta and royal icing. And it’s really worth pushing yourself to the south-eastern tip of the island to try the unique craft chocolate with crystallised sugar from Modica. The best place is Antica Dolceria Bonajuto  (Corso Umberto I, 159 Modica, Ragusa).

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For the most unique traditional foods check out this great list by Slow Food, which is working on an incredible project to preserve these jewels (http://www.fondazioneslowfood.com/en/regioni-italiane-presidi/sicily/). If you would like to dive into this cuisine and learn how to make some of their local dishes book a cooking class at Anna Tasca Lanza’s school (http://www.annatascalanza.com/index.php/it/). Anyone with a passion for food should take a visit to the folkloristic markets in Palermo: la Vucciria, il Capo, il Borgo Vecchio…and the oldest one of all, Ballarò.

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It’s hard to imagine another place on the globe with such eclectic and fascinating elements. It must be the reason why travellers keep coming back!