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B – for Baccelli & Pecorino

With all this nice and warm springtime weather, people start roaming the countryside basking in the sun, away from the traffic rush, enjoying nature’s bountiful colors and sounds. This reminds me of the time when, as a child, we used to dive into the rich fields of favas, for a bellyful of these pods, risking the wrath of the farmers, for having destroyed their harvest. That’s right, because the fava beans pods were a very precious nourishment for the farmers’ cattle, but if picked up at the beginning of the season, they would make a greedy treat for us too.

baccelli-favas-beans-pods-plant

I’m talking about an ancient member of the pea family, called “vicia faba” – fava beans, or broath beans or better yet “baccelli” as we use to call them here in Tuscany. Of pale green color with a slightly nutty flavor, these pods grow from late March all throughout the beginning of May.

It’s been proven they have been farmed since very ancient times, and have had an important part in the culture of many nations around the world. They were very appreciated in ancient Rome, so much that one of the most important noble family in the history of Romans, took their surname “i Fabi” from these pulses (vicia faba). Tracks have been found even in Troy and Crete and some say in ancient Greece, eating them was even prohibited, as the black stains on the pods were associated to death. However, their important nutritional value has been rediscovered more recently, as over time favas went from being appreciated by the wealthy class to being used for commoners and cattle feeding. Many legends have been around throughout the years on these pulses, but the most curious one that is still circulating nowadays around here, is the legend of the “leap pod”; it’s about the strange growth that favas have on a leap year. Farmers believe that on a leap year’s harvest, the fava beans inside the pods grow backwards; meaning that if you shell one, you’ll find the beans attached downward, as opposed to the stem. It’s truly just a funny legend, but you know what they say, passing on myths and legends keeps one nation’s story alive, and it can even get fun spending a lazy Sunday afternoon shelling pods to see who finds the backwards beans, on a leap year!

baccelli-fava-broath-beans

Coming back to these days, the tender fresh picked favas are a great treat for a springtime pic nic. In Tuscany we love them raw with just a pinch of salt and a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil, combined to its inseparable companion, the Tuscan Pecorino DOP cheese; it makes the perfect snack to go with a nice glass of Chianti wine.

fava-beans-olive-oil-salad

We like them so much, we even have a one-day festival called “la baccellata” that is held in Certaldo Alto, on the 25th of April this year, and helps the local church of San Tommaso e Prospero raise funds for another important occurrence, the procession of Beata Giulia in September. During the “baccellata” day, people gather to enjoy these tasty fresh pods together with Pecorino Marzolino cheese, a Tuscan type of fresh Pecorino, that hasn’t been seasoned and blends together beautifully with favas, in a unique delight for all senses.

fava-beans-baccelli-salad-salt-pepper

Another interesting way to taste your favas raw, is to make an easy and fast but very nutritious pesto out of them. All you need is 250gr of fresh shelled fava beans, a clove of garlic, 80gr of Pecorino cheese, a pinch of salt and some fresh basil leaves if you like it. Just blend everything together and then add a splash of Tuscan extra virgin olive oil, to get a creamy texture. You can enjoy this delight on a piece of toasted bread (crostini), as a side dish for meat or fish or make a generous portion of pasta: just boil it until “al dente” and stir-fry everything for one minute, adding just a drop of the boiling water if necessary. You can get creative and add some pine nuts or almonds to the mixture if you like, or just add them on top of the dish, slightly toasted.

pesto-baccelii-favas-pecorino

So our last tip is: when buying favas at the marketplace, if you’re in Tuscany ask for baccelli and if you wish to taste them raw, search for tender, firm pods with a velvety fuzz and small thin skinned beans inside, otherwise you’ll have to peel the skin off and to do so you’ll have to boil them for a few minutes.

fava-beans-salad-rustic

I guess all that’s left to say is buona baccellata (happy favas day)!!!

Enjoy!

S – for Spring and Sprouts

How do we know its springtime here in Tuscany? Just saying “springtime is here” is dull and a little out-of-date, don’t you think?

almond-tree-flowers

Imagine yourself dozing in the warm sunshine, blessed by a breeze under a blooming almond tree, on the bright green grass carpet covering the hills of the outlying countryside of Certaldo; the small vibrant daisies, primroses and violets slowly popping out here and there, filling the air with their delighting scent, while birds’ and bees’ is the only buzz you can perceive around you. Can you picture yourself immersed into this fairy Tuscan spring scenery?

tree-spring-flowers-violets

Now, I guess that’s what it takes to describe the arrival of Spring when it comes to nature’s awakening here in Tuscany, but wait! Here at Giuseppina’s Cooking School, we have one more good green reason to say “Yay springtime!

It’s when the wild asparagus sprouts pop out. The delicious and tender weed that grows abundant in the Tuscan countryside, mostly in arid environments, on open fields that haven’t been farmed in a while, or wherever there’s a cluster of trees. Its unique taste has been accompanying our great Tuscan culinary tradition since ages, and its multitude of uses in the kitchen have been passed on through generations in our family.

wild-asparagus

However, don’t get tricked by the name: wild asparagus sprouts are nothing like their cultivated peers, the common asparagus you can easily find at the greengrocers’. In fact, unlike the thick and woody sprouts of the common asparagus, the wild one is almost as thin as a grass blade, with a slightly bitter and pungent taste. Grandma’ always said “where there’s one there are hundreds”, and truly it is so, as wild asparagus grows rampant in big thick clusters, that we usually call “asparagiaie”.

field-wild-asparagus

As you may already know, we are passionate about keeping our traditions alive, so this is the time of the year, when we’re very likely to gather on Sundays, put on some rubber boots and go hiking in the woods, in search of this nature’s delicacy. Sometimes we even have fun making up a competition and whoever fills up their basket first wins, leaving the looser to do the grunt work, like cleanse and cook the spoils for all of us once home. It’s a really fun way to spend some time with family or friends, and bring home freshly picked goods for a meal.

But what to do with a great amount of such an exquisiteness, you might be wondering; well, as much wild sprouts we might have gathered in our baskets, it’s hardly ever enough. We enjoy this bounty in many different ways, from eating them raw – freshly picked – or just seared, with a drizzle of olive oil, black pepper and salt, to dipping them into poached eggs; combine them with the classic pasta, and a generous sprinkle of Parmesan shavings or add them to a beaten egg or two, and with the right seasoning enjoy an exquisite Italian omelet with just a splash of fine balsamic vinegar.

wild-asparagus-pan-fried

We could say there are as many recipes to experiment, as the sprouts of an asparagus cluster. However, we kept the best for last, because there is one particular dish that has been in our family for decades, and keeps inspiring us: it’s the smooth, creamy risotto con gli asparagi – Giuseppina’s signature dish when it comes to wild asparagus – and the reason we go crazy about wild sprouts hunting every year! Believe me, once you’ve had a taste of this beautiful spring dish, you won’t ever get enough of it. It’s nothing like the same old risotto you’re used to, it’s just so scented and delicate, yet distinctive and savory. Giuseppina holds tight to her family tradition recipe of course, and you can only experience this live in her kitchen; but there’s one hint about it I’m going to share with you though: I know you may find this unusual, but she never adds wine to simmer her wild asparagus risotto! Curious isn’t it?!

C – for Carnevale

… and other ancient Tuscan traditions

Semel in anno licet insanire” (once a year, it is allowed to act like crazy) – our ancestors used to say on February, during the most bizarre and outgoing celebration of the year.

The Carnival season is a tradition that we are carrying on since medieval times, when jesters used to run through the village, encouraging people – who were then oppressed by the system and used to live in extreme poverty – to parody the values of the society they lived in, and the authority of the severe political and religious commandments, by inverting the roles and creating the Backwards World, where they could disobey the rules and become whatever they wanted for a day, wearing the “clothes” of the character they were joking on, living in redundancy and acting like fools in the cheapest and most rumorous possible way.

MedievalCarnival

This rebellion would help them prepare for the forthcoming Lent season – the austere 40 days of Lent during which they had to abstain from eating meat and follow other ascetic practices, in order to purify their bodies and souls before the Easter festivity. In fact, the word Carnival seems to have Latin origins, as “carne levare” or “carnelevarium” means “giving up on meat”, a practice apparently dated back to the Romans era.

In order to be able to carry on such a commitment of great sacrifice, the Middle Age people would celebrate the Carnival not only by joking and feasting around, but mostly by overindulging on substantial and greasy meals, pints of wine and the sweetest desserts.

In Tuscany we are very bound to our ancient traditions, and fortunately some of them are still an important part of our cultural heritage. When the Carnival festivity comes up, local bakeries fill up their counters with greedy sweet and fried holiday treats, together with the traditional Tuscan dessert, which to this day has kept its original Renaissance recipe. We are talking about the Berlingozzo (berlinˈgɔttso), a soft, moist and flavored donut cake, with one of the quickest and simplest recipes ever, just like our grandmothers used to do it!

This carnival dessert disguised as a breakfast donut, used to be served on Fat Thursday, which in Florence was the day known as Berligaccio. This funny word, was the name of a fifteen-century Tuscan mask, used in Florence during Fat Thursday, and represented by a mascot carried out in effigy through the city’s streets, among the loudest shouts, most colored dances and funny acting.

Berlingaccio Firenze

Just like “Carnevale”, it seems to have a Latin origin as well, from the word “berlengo” which means “table”; this takes us back to the feasting and overindulging tradition of the Medieval period.

We also have a verb descended from it, that you can easily find in most of Boccaccio’s tales, as a proof of the ancient origins of this Tuscan custom. It’s “berlingare” and it means to chatter, or to blather about things with no sense, right after having had a substantial meal and several pints of wine. Giovanni Boccaccio, Certaldo’s local and most famous Late Medieval novelist, poet and humanist, used to make great use of this verb in his works, mostly when talking about or describing a female character, as he would associate it to women’s being so gossipy about everything.

lasciamo stare l’alte e grandi millanterie ch’ella fa quando berlinga coll’altre femmine”() “Ma solamente per voglia di berlingare (…) di che ella è vaghissima, sì ben dir le pare” – Il Corbaccio (Laberinto d’Amore) di Giovanni Boccaccio

 “forget about her great bragging about (herself) she does when she chatters with other females (…) But only for the wish to chatter is she famous, even if she thinks she speaks out right” – Il Corbaccio (Laberinto d’Amore) by Giovanni Boccaccio

The Tuscan Berlingozzo

berlingozzo toscano

This year’s Fat Thursday is approaching, and after telling you all about this special time of the year here in Tuscany, we couldn’t just leave you there craving for a taste of some Tuscan Carnival treats. As we’re preparing for our traditional feast – next 23th of February – here in Certaldo, we want to share with you the joy of preparing and having a byte of this typical Tuscan dessert. So let’s not “chatter” any further and come to our nice and cheerful donut.

It’s all about a couple of fresh egg yolks, beaten with some sugar until pale, mixed with lemon zest and a tablespoon or two of freshly squeezed lemon juice, some extravirgin olive oil and a nice cup of Vin Santo – now this is the secret right here!

berlingozzo toscano

We like our Carnival desserts to be sweet and flavored, but our ancestors didn’t have any artificial flavors at the time; they simply used the home-made products they had, and that’s just what makes it so special. So following the ancient customs, we add in our Tuscan traditional home-made directly-from-our-vineyard Vin Santo: a type of italian dessert wine, usually made from white grape varieties such as Trebbiano and Malvasia, hanged and left to dry out on racks, in a warm and well ventilated area. If you ever come to Certaldo or anywhere near in Tuscany, you can have a taste of this marvelous sweet wine, together with the Cantuccini – our traditional home-made almond cookies, served as a dessert, at the end of your meal. It’s one of our most important landmarks around here, don’t miss it!

berlingozzo toscano

At this point, we just pour in the flour, mixed to some potato starch and a pinch of salt, together with a bit of baking powder. Then gently incorporate the beaten egg whites and pour the dough into a donut shaped baking tin, and into the oven, to bake for about a half an hour… Just enough time for us to sit and sip a nice glass of Vin Santo, while preparing our mask and costumes for the feast. Cheers!

Ingredients: berlingozzo toscano

for a 20 cm. diameter baking tin

2 fresh eggs

75gr. Sugar

1 lemon

50 ml. Vin Santo

50 ml. Extra virgin olive oil

150 gr. Flour

25 gr. Potato starch

6gr. Baking powder

1 pinch of salt

Preheat oven to 170 C degrees

Bake for about 25-30 minutes

Enjoy!

V – for vineyards

 “While Nature Awakens” – behind the scenes

Every January is a new beginning here at Giuseppina’s Cooking School; as the nature awakens, we are preparing for a whole new year, load of great new recipes, delicious home-made preserves and fine tasty Chianti wine directly from our vineyards.

colline all'alba

There’s a great buzz in the air around here, and as Giuseppina is preparing to welcome and delight her guests this season, with new kitchen tricks and tips about her Tuscan recipes, we’re about to kick off with preparing our vineyards for a new great harvest year of fresh, marvelous wine that will go beautifully with our local cuisine dishes.

And because Nature can’t wait, the moment is right for us to cuddle our vines so that they will give us back their best rewards. It is a moment of great devotion, and attention given to the process of the vine’s new vegetative growth, the same as we would give to one of our home-made pasta dishes or bread. We start off by “kneading” the soil just enough so it can breathe out after a long cold winter; next, we add in the “spices” (winter fertilizer) that will help the vine’s heart grow its best harvest, giving the wine just that perfect mix of tastes that makes Chianti wine world wide famous and appreciated. At this point we are almost done, and we start trimming the vine, restoring it to keep the growth shape. It’s probably the most important part of the work, because keeping a clean shaped vine means a richer harvest; as an old saying states, once a vine said to its owner:
Chianti vineyards

fammi povera e ti farò ricco

(Keep me poor -of unwanted trims- and I will make you rich -of the best grapes-).

The vine is abundance, is love for the land in the shape of a grape and it takes a great passion and perseverance to produce the best wine possible, by making the most of the amazing properties that the land of Chianti has to give.

The wine-harvest and tasting is just the final act of a year-long process of hard work and caring, that we are going to share with our guests, making them go beyond the scenes, further than the popular tourist attractions, the simple wine tasting or just a local visit to the vineyards.

We stay out in front and give them the real deal about growing the Chianti vines, together with making them a real part of the story.

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