Balsamic? What’s all the fuss about?

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When talking balsamic it’s important to understand there are very different degrees of quality for this unique condiment. The original version, the so called Traditional Balsamic vinegar, is what gave worldwide fame to this regional delicacy. Not to be mistaken with balsamic condiments, or IGP certified, produced in much larger quantities not even nearly as sophisticated. Compared to its industrial rivals Traditional Balsamic vinegar has a very small production. It is the representation of traditional knowledge passed down for generations throughout centuries. The only ingredient is cooked must, which is then “aged” for at least 12 years – a concentration of deep complex flavour.

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Here is how it goes: Traditional Balsamic Vinegar is the most controlled and regulated food product of Italy. It is made using a series of barrels of decreasing size, called a battery. The battery is exposed to cold temperatures in winter and high temperatures in summer, which reduces the content of each barrel by approximately 15%. The product is ready when it has aged one year in each barrel, beginning from the largest one. When it reaches the smallest one it is ready for extraction. The result is a continuous blend of different vintages and is characterised by rejuvenation. Each year the finished product from the smallest barrel is removed and bottled while the contents of each barrel are transferred to the next, with the first barrel being filled with new must. This long and caring process provides the vinegar with a concentration of taste and a viscous texture. All imitation, non-regulated products add sugar to create density. A small bottle of Traditional Balsamic Vinegar is obtained from 70 – 90 pounds of grapes, and the process takes at least 12 years. It’s something very special, to be used occasionally and on very specific foods.

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Pairings:
Being such a precious and fine food, cooking with it is a waste as heat would destroy it’s essence, and it would be wasted over a salad. Best with:

  • Vanilla gelato and strawberries
  • Parmigiano Reggiano cheese
  • Panna cotta
  • Steak
  • Meat ravioli

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Interesting facts: A good traditional balsamic vinegar uses barrels of at least 4 different types of wood in its battery. A small bottle of this kind of vinegar is obtained from 30 to 40 kg of grapes (66-88 pounds).

Tips on how to recognise the REAL product:

  • The name must contain the word TRADIZIONALE and the certification DOP
  • The texture must be viscous
  • No ingredients apart from must
  • No vintage statement

Heat up with a cup of Vin Brûlé

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Italy is snowed in! Smokey, hot and spicy wine – the perfect solution to chilly weather.
Vin Brûlé (mulled wine) is a tradition in most mountainous areas of Europe. Red wine is infused with spices and citrus and served boiling hot! It’s an extremely fun and easy preparation for your next winter party.

Watch the recipe video: https://vimeo.com/199480956

Recipe for 4
Ingredients:
Red wine, 1 bottle
Orange peel, 1 orange
Brown sugar, 3 Tbsp.
Cloves, 1 Tbsp.
Star anise, 4 whole
Cinnamon, 2 sticks

Method:
In a pot add all ingredients and bring to a boil. Cook for 10 minutes. Strain and ladle into individual cups or glasses. Serve hot and garnish with orange peel and whole star anise.

Cheers!

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Tiramisù

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Need some dessert revelation for Christmas? Why not go the Italian way?
Tiramisù could be defined as THE Italian dessert, known the world over for its creamy texture and comforting flavor. Its origin is mysterious and is motive for many disputes amongst different northern Italian regions that claim the invention of this classic. Tiramisù in Italian means “Raise me up”, probably referring to the highly nutritious ingredients that make it an energetic food. More malicious theories believe it has a sexual connotation that refers to it being an aphrodisiac dish. Energy food or aphrodisiac, to us it remains a favorite, especially for its simplicity in the making. A few simple ingredients and little skills needed. Make sure to use fresh eggs from a trusted source, as they will be served uncooked. Get out your spatula and let the show begin!

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Watch the recipe in a short video: https://vimeo.com/195761067

Ingredients:
Lady finger cookies, ¼ pound
Coffee, 1 cup
Eggs, 4 medium
Powdered sugar, 2 ¼ ounces
Mascarpone, 1 pound
Bitter cocoa powder, 2 ounces
Red berries, as a garnish

Method:
In a casserole, display the cookies to form a layer. Pour over coffee and set aside. Separate egg yolks from egg whites in two bowls. Add the sugar to the yolks and mix until smooth, add the mascarpone and mix until smooth. On the side beat the whites until stiff. Fold whites into the mascarpone cream, gently, trying not to loose the fluffiness. Pour the mixture in the casserole to cover cookies. Sift the cocoa powder over the whole surface. Refrigerate for at least 6 hours. Serve slices garnished with berries.
Buon Appetito!

Dreaming of an orange Christmas

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If you feel overwhelmed by the Christmas shopping craze, a gift made with your own hands can be a very special and unique way to show your love. This year why not make orange jam? It’s the peak of the season and the oranges are as juicy, sweet and ripe as it gets. Presented in a glass jar of your choice with a handmade decoration it will unmistakably win your loved ones over.

Recipe:
Ingredients
Oranges, 4 pounds
Apple, 1
Brown sugar, 2 pounds
Fresh Ginger, 1 tablespoon
Cloves, 2
Cardamom, 2 pods

Method
Peal oranges, clean trying to discard as much of the white part as possible, as this is what makes the jam more bitter. Keep the peel of an orange and boil in a pot of water for 5 minutes (helps take bitterness away).
In a large pot bring to boil the orange pulp, sugar, ginger, spices and chopped orange peel. Cook over a medium to low heat for about 40 minutes. Take out the cardamom and cloves and let the jam cool a little. With an electric blender, blend the jam to as fine as you prefer it. We like ours to stay a little chunky, so we just give it a quick blend for smoothness.
Sterilise your jars, ladle the boiling jam into the jars, screw the lids on and turn upside down.
Once cooled down you can play around with creating fun labels and decorating the jars with beautiful materials and strings.

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Panettone

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At this time of the year grocery shops and bakeries all over Italy are filling with stacks of colorful boxes containing all kinds of Panettone, a rich, fluffy, naturally leavened bread cake filled with candied fruit and raisins. Originally from Milano, today it has become a tradition in the Piemonte region as well, where the classic recipe sees the addition of a hazelnut glaze topping. There is another very similar cake, Pandoro, originally from the town of Verona. It is baked into the shape of a star and is without raisins and fruit.

Panettone is a century old tradition, a delicious treat present on all Italian tables during the Christmas holidays. Apparently, the etymology is related to it being, essentially, a large sweet bread: “pane” in Italian means bread and “panettone” literally translates as “large bread”. But there’s also a legend saying that the inventor was a baker called Toni. The phrase “Pan de Toni” (bread of Toni) triggered the birth of the name.

The secret to any good panettone is the choice of ingredients. Renowned bakers use pure butter, fresh eggs, top quality flours and first choice fruit. The yeast must be rigorously a sour dough (called “madre”, mother) essential because it provides a very slow leavening. Some bakers have kept the same starter for centuries, passing it on from generation to generation.impasto_glassaWe recently visited Galup, a baker in north-western Italy that has been using the same yeast starter since 1922. This special colony of bacteria has survived a war, witnessed the advent of TV, computers and indeed quite a number of generations. Natural yeasts add complex flavors and unique nuances which commercial yeasts would never be able to achieve.

Panettone is delicious on its own, as a dessert or even as a snack, paired with a cup of tea or coffee. It even makes for a pretty incredible extra-decadent French toast! On Christmas Eve Italians serve it with a fortified wine custard called zabaione. Here is a quick and easy recipe:

Panettone e Zabaione
Ingredients
1 Panettone or Pandoro
4 egg yolks
¾ cup white sugar
½ cup fortified wine (Marsala or Port)

Method
Start by making your zabaione cream. Separate egg yolks and mix with sugar. Once combined place your bowl in a pot with boiling water (bain-marie). Add the wine and whisk the cream until it thickens to a creamy texture. Slice the Panettone and serve with the zabaione on the side.

Buon appetito!

Orange is the new white

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Orange is the color of fall, so why not taste a glass of this new particular wine that is on everyone’s lips? It’s not made from oranges and it’s not that modern of a process either: way back in Roman times white grapes were commonly fermented this way. A very old tradition, that has seen a rebirth in the late 80’s with pioneers such as Gravner and Radikon who gave birth to the orange wine movement in north eastern Italy. Basically, it’s about making white wines as if they were red. In conventional white wine making the grapes are pressed and skins immediately separated and discarded. Instead in red wine production the skins are left in contact with the must (soon-to-be wine) during fermentation. This same technique is applied to orange wines: the white wine grapes’ skins are kept in contact with the must throughout fermentation. This helps extract color, flavor and natural antioxidants called tannins that help create a stable wine. This is why orange wines are in most cases associated with natural wines – if made correctly they need no intervention at all to maintain their longevity and stability. It is important to clarify a common misconception: orange wine isn’t equal to natural wine, and vice-versa. Natural wine can be sparkling, white, orange, rosè, red and sweet. Orange wine can also be produced conventionally. So what exactly defines a natural wine?

In recent years the movement has really hit, with dozens of natural wine fairs between Italy, France, London, Vienna and Berlin. This year even New York stepped in. All the most vibrant cities across the globe are sprawling with wine bars that focus on these gems, and important restaurants such as Noma (4 times best restaurant of the world) have wine lists that exclusively propose this approach. The term is used to loosely describe the philosophy of winemakers who grow their grapes with no chemical additions, hand-harvesting the fruit and avoiding the addition of industrially produced yeasts, keeping sulphur additions to a bare minimum, if added at all. The whole focus is on the fruit, the land and the vintage. It could be defined as a “zero intervention” approach. Most people don’t know that winemakers can add dozens of ingredients to their wine and apply just as many processes to correct mistakes and standardize flavors, without being required to list them on the label. Keep in mind that wine is one of the few food industries that is not regulated by labelling laws. Modern conventional cellars look more like chemical labs than the romantic ideal we all have fixated in our minds. Today’s industrial winemaking leaves very little to nature. On the other hand minimal intervention or natural wines use no unnecessary chemicals, processes or treatments, resulting in a product that’s more honest and reflective of its region. These wines really tell unique and diverse stories about where they come from and about the style of the winemaker. Honest wines, that are not afraid of showing who they really are.

Taste orange wines with an open mind. Don’t think about them as whites, enjoy their versatility and depth of flavor. They pair amazingly with food, most food in fact. Some of our favorites are cheese, charcuterie boards and poultry dishes.

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Orange wine during skin contact fermentation, Zidarich cellar, Carso Italy.
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Orange wine tasting at Slow Food’s main international fair,  Salone del Gusto in Torino, Italy.
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One of the most iconic orange wines of our times, Ribolla Gialla by Josko Gravner, aged in clay vases called Amphora.

Noble Fat, There’s an oil for that!

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It’s olive harvest season! Between October and early December – depending on variety, geographical position and production style – all across Italy the mature fruits are manually picked and taken to the mills. Pressing them as quickly as possible preserves all of their goodness and all the year’s work comes to an end, from tree to bottle. Did you know that 100kg (220 lb) of olives produce just 12.8kg (28 lb) of EVOO? It’s a very expensive extraction, but it’s totally worth the work…

One of the rare cases when something delicious is at the same time extremely good for you. Extra Virgin Olive Oil (EVOO) is one of the most nutritious vegetal oils, an unbeatable condiment, one of the main pillars of the so-praised Mediterranean diet. A noble fat good for flavor and for your health – rich in natural antioxidants as well as vitamins E and K and beneficial fatty acids. When pure and extra virgin, it contains a number of active components that have a protective action towards the cells of our organism, slowing down their ageing process and strengthening their resistance to free radicals (carcinogens).

The olive tree is very unique, it can live for centuries resisting heat and droughts, cold winters and harsh conditions. Naturally, it only grows in specific geographical areas of the globe between the 30° and 45° parallel, basically going from Marocco to France. At the heart of the Mediterranean. Today there are some plantations in other areas in the world with similar climates, such as Australia and South America.

Olives are just like grapes: considering just Italy it counts over 400 different indigenous varieties growing all over the country. Some are more prone to hilly inland conditions, some to steep terraces on the coasts of Liguria and others that reach the furthest northern tip at the feet of the Alps, on lake Garda. We can talk of an actual terroir for EVOO just as we do with wine. There is the right one for every food pairing. For example a delicate seafood dish can’t get overpower by a strong and spicy EVOO from Puglia. One would rather choose a delicate and subtle flavor, like the Taggiasche olives in Liguria. A full bodied and piquant EVOO from Sicily is unbeatably paired with comfort dishes such as brisket or a bean soup.

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Freshly picked Bianchera variety olives

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Olive producer in Sicily, testing the ripeness of the fruit

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The biodiversity of EVOO’s, the perfect fit for each dish

Tips on how to choose your EVOO – make sure to choose Extra Virgin, when it’s just Olive Oil or Virgin it was most probably made using chemical processes, from second choice olives and the natural beneficial properties are just not there! And let’s not get started on aroma and flavor. Also when buying European EVOO’s you can look for DOP certification labels that are an assurance of qualitative standards.

Tips on how to store your EVOO – Being unrefined, it’s a delicate product and some important details must be considered when storing it. The enemies of EVOO are light, air and heat – this is why the bottles of good olive oil are made from dark glass (the darker the better) and why at home, if you are not going through a vast quantity of EVOO, it is better to use small bottles, which minimize the exposure to air. Keeping the bottle close to the stove or in direct sunlight is also not good because of the heat exposure.