Thursday, September 28, 2017

Pies. In. Art!

This just appeared in my Twittface feed. I found myself trying to work out the recipe. It's obviously a boiled crust for a meat pie with gravy, but the filling...

Duck maybe, and turkey, plums and figs, walnuts and pinoli.

I might have to try it.


Friday, September 15, 2017

Buon Venerdi, and here's to the pope...

...whoever he may be.

A fun Friday rhyme to go with an old fashioned English dish, Stargazy pie, from Cornwall.

Yep, it's a pie with fish heads sticking out, looking straight at you.

The traditional fish is called Pilchards, a kind of sardine that English (protestant) fishermen used to catch and export to Catholic countries, where they were eaten on Fridays.

It goes with the traditional "Toast to Pilchards," which these days I think we can all agree on...

"Here's health to the Pope, may he live to repent
And add just six months to the term of his Lent
And tell all his vassals from Rome to the Poles,
There's nothing like pilchards for saving their souls!"

Here's the BBC's recipe, if you want to give it a try.

For the mustard sauce

For the pie

  1. For the mustard sauce, bring the stock to the boil in a non-reactive saucepan. Whisk in the crème fraîche, mustard, salt, mustard powder and lemon juice until well combined. Bring back to the simmer.
  2. Pass the sauce through a fine sieve into a jug and set aside.
  3. For the pie, cook the bacon in boiling water for 20 minutes. Drain, then allow to cool slightly before chopping into lardons.
  4. Bring another pan of water to the boil and cook the baby onions for 6-7 minutes, or until tender. Drain and refresh in cold water, then slice each onion in half. Set aside.
  5. Preheat the oven to 200C/400F/Gas 6.
  6. Roll out the puff pastry until 3-4mm thick, then cut into 4 equal-sized squares. Using a small circular pastry cutter the size of a golf ball, cut out 2 holes in each pastry square.
  7. Place each square on a baking tray and brush with the beaten egg yolk. Chill in the fridge for 15 minutes.
  8. Bake the pastry squares in the oven for 18-20 minutes, or until golden-brown and crisp. Remove from the oven and set aside.
  9. Turn the grill on to high.
  10. Place the sardine fillets, heads and tails on a solid grill tray, brush with the oil and season with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Grill for 2-3 minutes, or until golden-brown and just cooked through (the fish should be opaque all the way through and flake easily).
  11. Heat a frying pan until medium hot, add the butter and bacon lardons and fry gently for 3-4 minutes, or until golden-brown. Add the onions and stir in enough sauce to coat all the ingredients in the pan. Reserve the remaining sauce and keep warm.
  12. Bring a small pan of water to the boil, add the vinegar and a pinch of salt. Reduce the heat to a simmer.
  13. Crack the quail's eggs into a small bowl of iced water, then pour off any excess (there should only be just enough water to cover the eggs). Swirl the simmering water with a wooden spoon to create a whirlpool effect, then gently pour the quails' eggs into the centre of the whirlpool. Poach for about 1-2 minutes, or until the egg whites have set and the yolk is still runny. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain on kitchen paper.
  14. To serve, divide the onion and bacon mixture between 4 serving plates. Arrange the sardine fillets on top, then place four poached quails' eggs around the fillet. Using a stick blender, blend the remaining sauce until frothy. Spoon the froth over the top of the sardines and eggs. Top each pile with the puff pastry squares, then place the sardine heads and tails through each hole in the pastry. Serve immediately.


Sunday, September 10, 2017


Ok, it's raining.

Good work, guys.


Saturday, September 09, 2017

A little old fashioned English cookery... not going to hurt you...

Crumpets for your tea.

People don't remember what they're supposed to be like. Americans think they're the same thing as "English muffins" and English people think they're those little white rubbery things that look like hockey pucks with holes in that you get in plastic packets at Tesco's.

But try this:


about 2 teaspoons of fresh yeast
cup of warm water
splash of milk
tablespoon of sugar
pinch of salt
2 cups flour
2 tablespoons oil or melted butter

Soften the yeast in the warm water with the milk and the sugar dissolved in it. Wait until it's getting nice and foamy (ten mins or so). Stir it down a bit and add in the flour a bit at a time while whisking briskly. Whisk in the oil and maybe a bit more milk until the consistency is like thickish pancake batter.

Nice and fluffy.
Allow the batter to rest while you prepare the ring and the pan. It will get fluffier and start showing little bubbles... this is a Good Thing. It means the yeast is working and you will get the proper consistency and those nice little holes to catch the honey when you're done.

Just right.

Prepare a ring. If you don't want to buy crumpet rings (which come in silicone nowadays I hear) you can just take the top and bottom off a tuna tin. I found it works just fine. Gently oil the inside of the ring with your finger.

Warm a griddle or skillet. Be very careful not to let it get too hot. Melt a pat of butter. You will know if your pan is too hot if the butter starts to burn or smoke. If the pan is too hot, the bottom of the crumpet will scorch and it will be raw inside. Which is gross. The pan should be just warm enough to make the butter start to bubble a bit. Butter has a lot of water in it, so this is just the water boiling off and leaving the fat.

Place the ring in the pan, scooping up most of the butter so it sits in the bottom of the ring. Let the ring warm up for a minute or so.

Give your batter one quick whisk and gently scoop enough into the ring to bring it to a depth of about half an inch. Be careful not to let any drip down the sides of the ring or into the pan. Now leave it alone. if it's a cool day, put the lid on the skillet pan, but leave a bit of space for steam to escape.

On the left, I think the batter had not been allowed to sit and develop long enough, and I poured just a little too much batter into the ring. The one with the holes was a little thinner, and the batter had got really fluffy. Timing and precise control of the temperature in the pan is essential. I think they would be quite difficult to do on an electric burner.
The crumpet is done when it has risen in the ring and the top surface has formed the famous little holes. If you gently tap the top surface with a finger, no batter should stick to your finger tip.

Nice and toasted, golden brown, on the bottom. Firm and smooth top surface. 
Lift the whole thing out of the pan with a pancake flipper, ring and all. Shake the crumpet out of the ring and onto a plate with a cloth or paper towel to catch the butter. It should be toasty, crisp and golden brown on the bottom, springy and spongey on top and have the little tunnels all through. Timing and temperature control are everything.

Keep the heat low, but not so low that it comes out pallid or too soft on the bottom. Practice makes perfect. If it's a little under done, just pop it back into the hot pan for a few minutes.

When you go to make the next one, wash the ring thoroughly with a bit of soap to make sure there's no residue left, or the next one will stick.

I tried it this morning and I'm amazed at how very exactly they are like the ones I remember. Ideally you eat them hot out of the pan or off the griddle with a pot of good strong tea. No need to toast them. You only toast the ones that come rubbery and deflated like sad little balloons in plastic Tesco's packets.

Tea time. Darjeeling, for the afternoon.


Sweet Pickled Figs

I did this one late last night and was a bit tired, so didn't take pics of the process, but it's not very difficult. Nothing like as finicky as crumpets.

2 pounds of fresh figs
1.5 cups of apple cider vinegar
1.5 cups water
6 cups sugar
Pinch + of salt.

Wash the figs and put them in a bowl. Boil some water and pour it still very hot over the figs to cover and allow them to sit.

Put the water, vinegar and sugar in a large pot and bring slowly to just under the boiling point.

In a mortar grind, then combine, to taste, the following spices
fresh ginger minced fine
whole allspice beads
whole cinnamon
(a very small quantity of) cloves
coriander seeds
cardamom pods
Ginepro beads

Grind these fairly coarse, each separately, then combine and stir and add them to the sugar/vinegar/water mixture. Bring all to a low simmer, and while stirring, add in the figs, being careful to stir very gently so as not to bruise the fruit.

Turn the heat down as low as it will go and simmer 30 minutes.

Place a small quantity of the syrup in jars and add the figs gently one at a time. Fill up the remaining space in the jars with liquid and plenty of the spices. Lid the jars, finger tight, and prepare a water bath in a large pot. Place each jar in the water bath and boil ten minutes. Remove the jar and allow to cool. The jars should seal.

They're ready in about 4 weeks, but of course get better the longer you leave them.

And I have just learned that I am sorely in need of one of these. Scalded my fingers a couple of times last night trying to get the jars out of the pot. I ended up just holding them in with the lid and pouring the water off. 


Now, if you all would be so kind, pray for an end to the Italian drought. The temperatures have come down, but the promised rain has still not arrived. 

I realize this is an Advent hymn, but it seems apropos.

In your infinite mercy, O Lord, have pity on your nation Italy and send us rain.
Save us, Lord, for we are perishing...

Deus, in quo vívimus, movémur et sumus, plúviam nobis tríbue congruéntem, ut, præséntibus subsídiis sufficiénter adiúti, sempitérna fiduciálius appetámus.
Per Dominum nostrum Iesum Christum, Filium tuum: qui tecum vivit et regnat in unitate Spiritus Sancti Deus, per omnia saecula saeculorum.

Wednesday, September 06, 2017


I've learned that we are living and gardening in Zone 9. This has helped a great deal in working out what sort of things to plant, when to harvest etc.

But some things are pretty obvious. The big fig tree on my patch - at least 50 years old - is fruiting quite abundantly.

You can tell easily when it's time to pick them because they turn quite dramatically from green to dark purple, and are ready when they've started to soften and droop downwards.

I asked Annamaria for advice on picking, and instead of lending me a ladder she showed me her trick for making a fig-picker.

You cut the bulbous top part off a water bottle and stick it on the end of a broom pole.

It can be a bit tricky to get the knack of it, but you sort of use the sharp edge of the plastic cup part to cut through the stem, and the little blob of goodness plops down into the bowl.

The first big fig harvest a couple of weeks ago.

Found the wasp nests in the rosemary bushes under the fig tree. They must only use them for rasing their young because just a couple of weeks before this I'd seen them full of wasps, all snoozing in the mid-day heat. Just a short time later the nests are empty and abandoned.

I'm extra proud of this zucca. It's starting to turn orange now and has quite a hard shell. Must weigh at least 15 lbs. I go out and give it a friendly pat every day to encourage it.

I transplanted the seedlings after they just sprouted up spontaneously from one of the pots we rescued from the garden in Norcia. I started them from seeds I saved from a bit of zucca I bought in the produce shop there. So this is the second generation. Now the plants are enormous, covering ten meters of ground. It produced a few fruits, but this one is the best.

The weather finally broke last week and the temps are down to a more seasonally normal 80 F. or so. We haven't had the promised rain though. The forecast is for more tomorrow. Keeping up the prayers for an end to the drought, and still saving dish water for the terrace pots.

Some of the pumpkins and a young version of the big zucca. Very sweet and dense flesh, and of course very good for you. The pumpkins turned out well but all quite small because of the heat.

In the background you can see the two pots of sweet potatoes - that likes it as hot and sunny as possible, and the basil that also likes a sunny spot.

The flowers and herbs on the terrace are doing OK, but the heat has been very hard on the flowering plants. The rose - the last survivor of the six I had in  Norcia - produced three flowers that immediately dried up.

I found an acanthus spinosus, a beautiful flowering plant that I've always wanted in the garden, but they like cooler temps and shade, so it produced a beautiful flower spike which was lovely, but after the heat got started in earnest it more or less gave up. I've cut off the dead stuff now and am happy that it seems to be bouncing back. But it's getting moved into a shady spot in the garden proper when we've turned it over and finished preparing the beds.

The morning glories are doing much better now that the heat is going down a bit,

and the passion flowers - another survivor of the quakes that I started from seed - have begun to produce more buds that I hope will flower soon.

Lots of vines and quite a few buds, but a lot of them just dried up in the terrible heat and never opened, no matter how much I watered the pot.

In other news, I was very happy to be able to join the Italian SSPX's annual pilgrimage for the feast of St. Pius X. They walk every year from Bevagna to Assisi, with an overnight stop in Foligno and a Mass in beautiful Spello on the way. It was the first time I got to meet the nice sisters from Narni face to face, and we got on famously. They reiterated their invitation to come down to stay over on Saturday evenings to attend the Mass on Sundays. This will be much more doable now that the bus and train service out of San Martino has started again.

This is the Mass on Sunday morning in the church of San Andrea in Spello. I took the train down to Foligno and stayed over in a B&B and joined the pilgrimage to walk between Foligno and Spello, but that was as far as I was going to make it. The group all carried on to Assisi, but I had to go home and rest.

This church has a Pinturicchio altarpiece in the right hand transept. I tried to get a few photos, but the picture is so huge and the space so small you can't get it all in, and the light reflects onto the surface no matter where you stand. It's a pity because this photo from Wiki does absolutely no justice to it whatever.

Having discovered Pinturicchio recently on a trip to Spello with a friend in June, I think I've found my new favourite Italian painter. Even greater than Filippino Lippi, in my opinion. And it's just sitting there, above a neglected transept altar, usually in the dark, in an all but abandoned church in one of those hill towns that has been turned almost entirely into a theme park. As soon as the Mass was over and everyone gone off to the next leg of the pilgrimage, it lapsed instantly back into being a rather shabby and neglected little museum where a few tired tourists wandered now and then. But I think maybe this winter I'll go do a little art-pilgrimage of my own and just go and look at it for a while.


The figs reminded a friend of mine about this little meditation from the late great Cardinal Bacci, one of the few at V-2 who tried to stop the train going over the cliff.

The Parable of the Barren Fig Tree
1. Today’s subject for meditation is the parable of the barren fig tree in the Gospel of St. Luke. “A certain man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit thereon and found none. And he said to the vine-dresser, ‘Behold, for three years now I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and I find none. Cut it down, therefore; why does it still encumber the ground?’ But he answered him and said, ‘Sir, let it alone this year too, till I dig around it and manure it. Perhaps it may bear fruit, but if not, then afterwards thou shalt cut it down.’” (Luke 13:6-9)

Perhaps Jesus has come many times to us also looking for the fruit of our good works, and has found none. Perhaps He has continued to bestow favours and blessings upon us, and perhaps He has waited many years for us to correspond with His grace by performing acts of penance and of expiation.

We may have made good resolutions many times; but what became of them? Temptations of various kinds may have caused us to neglect these resolutions, which remained like branches without any fruit. We must remember that although God is infinitely good and merciful, He is also infinitely just. The day could come when He might say: “Cut it down. Why does it still encumber the ground?” In that case what would become of us?

An episode described in the Gospel of St. Mark should induce serious reflection. Jesus was walking from Bethany to Jerusalem and grew hungry on the way. He saw a fig tree beside the road but on inspection found that it was barren. “And He said to it ‘May no fruit ever come from thee henceforth forever!’ “And immediately the fig tree withered up.” His disciples, we are told, were amazed when they saw this happening. (Cf. Mt. 21:18-20)
How terrible if God should ever pronounce this severe condemnation upon us.

2. One morning after they had fished in vain throughout the night, the Apostles saw Jesus appear on the shore of the lake. “He said to them, ‘Cast your nets to the right of the boat.’” (Cf. John 21:6-11) They obeyed and caught so many fish that the net was in danger of breaking.

While the Apostles were working without the help of Jesus, they caught nothing. When they worked under the direction of Our Lord they caught a miraculous draught of fishes. In the Garden of Gethsemane, however, the Apostles could not summon the strength to watch and pray with Jesus for even an hour. As a result, they abandoned and denied Him.

For love of gain the Apostles worked throughout the entire night; for love of Jesus, however, they were not able to watch and pray for even an hour, and so they fell miserably.

3. We should learn two lessons from this meditation. We should work always for Jesus and with Jesus. If we stray away from Him Who is the way, the truth and the life, we shall get lost, and our efforts will have no value for eternity. Without Jesus, our spiritual life will grow dry. As long as we are with Jesus, everything will be good and holy, even humiliation and sorrow, and all our actions will gain merit for us in Heaven. Furthermore, we must take care not to make the same mistake as the Apostles, who spent the whole night working for material gain but could not watch and pray for even one hour with Jesus. We should consider it our most important obligation in life to work always with Jesus and for Jesus. Only in this way shall we find contentment in this life and happiness in the next.