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La Sportellina – a Tuscan traditional Easter cake

The season of Lent in the old days, was by precept a time of fasting and repentance, so people would resort to homemade products only. It was a common and very heartfelt religious tradition, especially in the countryside. Most of the peasant families’ meals consisted of soups, polenta, lots of vegetables form their own farm or just some homemade bread and freshly picked herbs. Adding a pilchard in oil every now and then was a real delicacy that not all could afford. So no wonder on Easter, people would indulge on abundant dishes and plenty of meat, generously soaked by a glass or two of good wine!

The food preparations usually began during the Holy Week before Easter, because everything had to be produced in great quantities, to be shared with families and neighbors as a symbol of gratitude and celebration.

As a child, I remember a great buzz around here, of people going up and down the town’s alleys from early morning until sunset. I could tell Easter was coming just by raising the nose and sniffing the air: suddenly I was engulfed with the sweetest smell of aniseed and freshly baked cake, that used to come from the town’s wood-fired oven. Yes, because at that time, there were no household appliances and not everyone could afford to have their own oven. So during the Easter rush, when women used to prepare lots of oven-baked goods, they had to run up and down the main street with their kneaded doughs to reach the town’s oven when their turn came. Imagine that oven working day and night to bake hundreds of pans of traditional delicacies, which they would take back home once baked. Of course the smell that filled the air back then, was astonishing!

I bet now you’re pretty curious about what actually did they bake, right?! Well, here in Tuscany, we have a special sweet tradition, called “la Sportellina” or “schiacciata di Pasqua” (literally the Easter squashed bread). It’s quite a funny name for a cake that looks anything but squashed, I know! But actually the name comes from the great amount of eggs that need to be cracked (squashed) into the batter.

tuscan-traditional-easter-cake

You see, the connection between ancient traditions and nature is always amazing, because once again nothing is random: at the beginning of the spring season, hens used to lay more eggs than usual, and they had to be consumed pretty fast, since there were no special storing procedures like nowadays. So this Easter cake – like most of this season’s cakes and dishes – was just the perfect way to consume quite a few eggs.

As I said, our mothers and grandmas used to prepare this traditional cake in large quantities, during the Holy Week. It would take a lot of work and patience to make this recipe, due to the rising and baking times, which were very long. Imagine they had to knead and allow the dough to rise, again and again for no less than 5 times, before baking it! That’s another one of the reasons why these cakes were being made in large quantities. Some pieces were then being wrapped and given to the family’s guests and neighbors, others were being offered to the church, to be served on the way out, after the Holy Mass on Easter day, and a few were being left for breakfast in the days after.

In our days, when everything seems so rushed and we’re always in a hurry, it’s hard to think of dealing with such a long and delicate preparation and of course we all know you can easily find it at the supermarket. What you don’t know is the feeling you get when you dip your hands into that dough and start kneading. You take that moment just for yourself, to clear your mind and let your thoughts run free, while the sweet smell of aniseed and mint liqueur fill your nostrils enough to take you back to your childhood days. It doesn’t matter how long it will take, it’ll all be worth it when you see that precious little piece of dough come up and become brown, making you feel proud for once again having kept the tradition alive.

tuscan-traditional-easter-cake-buona-pasqua

The Sportellina Recipe:

1,5 kg 00 flour

50 gr. brewer’s yeast

150 ml milk

7 eggs (plus 1 to brush the surface)

450 gr. sugar

110 gr. extravirgin olive oil

50 gr. butter

50 gr. mint liqueur

50 gr. maraschino

15 gr. aniseed

1 orange (zest and juice)

First of all dissolve the brewer’s yeast into the warm milk, then gradually add in some flour (about 300-400 grams) and start mixing until well incorporated. Knead it into a ball and put it in a bowl to rest for about 2 hours.

After two hours, mix in 3 eggs, 150 gr of sugar, 40 gr. of olive oil and another 400 grams of flour. Then let it rest again, in a warm place until it doubles the volume (this time will take about three hours).

For the third step, add in 2 eggs, 150 gr of sugar, 40 gr of olive oil, 25 gr of mint liqueur, 25 gr. of maraschino and again 400 gr. of flour. Knead it again until all ingredients are well combined and leave it to rest for another 3 hours.

Finally, mix in the rest of the ingredients and knead it for a while, then give it a final 3 hours rest again.

Divide the batter into 3 equal parts and put them into the baking moulds (we use the same ones as for Panettone). Put the moulds in a warm place covered, and let them rise for 4-5 hours, or until the double their volume.

Brush the top of the cakes with the beaten egg and then bake in a preheated oven at 180° C for about 50 minutes, or until the surface becomes brown. Leave them in the oven to rest for 10 more minutes and then let them cool completely before serving.

You can keep the cakes in a plastic bag, in a cool dry place for up to one week, so you can actually bake more pieces and offer them to family and friends as an Easter gift, or you can just have a wonderful breakfast everyday for a whole week! Enjoy!

L’Olio Novo

The Tuscan Green Gold, from the farm to the fork!

Autumn isn’t only about roasting chestnuts and sipping red wine by the fireplace. There’s pretty little time to just sit around, when living in the Tuscan countryside. So between the golden autumn leaves and the first winter chill, as soon as we’re done with the vine harvest, we must get our strength back and be ready for a new adventure: the olive harvest.

Pretty much like every other year, we start picking olives in our farm, around the mid of October, and just before the first chills of November. Anciently it was used to wait for the olives to be fully mature before harvesting. But the weather wasn’t always merciful with crops in late autumn, so to protect them from the early frosts, over the years people have traditionally developed the custom that we all know today, to harvest olives earlier: before they are fully ripe.

olio-novo-tuscan-olive-harvest

This tradition, has become an essential part of our territory’s reputation worldwide, for it has given us a unique product of excellence: “l’olio novo” toscano (the freshly pressed Tuscan extravirgin olive oil). Unique because the chemical and organoleptic characteristics of the PDO extravirgin olive oil are mostly related to the climate of the growth area, which influences directly the quality of the phenols, the bitterness and sharpness of the taste.

So harvesting olives before they are ripe, means the level of polyphenol they contain is still high. And although, unfortunately for us, that implies a lower quantity of product, it’s actually just what it needs to obtain the perfect contrast of that intense bitter and peppery taste, so typical of the Tuscan extravirgin olive oil. However, the final result for each batch of oil, also depends on many other elements, so much that it’s almost impossible to have two different productions with the same taste, even within the same area.

olive-tree-harvest

As we always do in our farm, harvesting olives turns into a family fun activity. Being a farmer is a rather tough physical effort and any extra hand is always welcome; so traditionally during the olive harvest, close relatives and friends or neighbors from the nearby farms gather to offer their help and spend some lighthearted days together in the open air, enjoying the breathtaking view over the Tuscan hills. Everyone takes part in the process and being able to follow the product from the olive grove to the fork, is really exciting for all.

tuscan-olive-harvest-family-fun

The day starts very early in the morning, when armed with rubber boots, comfy clothes and tools of the trade, we reach our small olive grove and start collecting the greenish-purple little gems. What we love the most about it, is that our family still preserves the tradition from generations, and a day of hard work in the farm, easily turns into a celebration. We love to recreate the old fashioned charm of living in the countryside, just like our grandparents used to: understanding the importance of this moment, giving thanks for nature’s richness and sharing the sweat, the laughter, the food and the wine, until the work is done! My grandfathers used to tell me about their harvest gatherings, describing those moments as the most important in the life of a farmer, for socializing and opening up with others on everyday life, by sharing the labor and the table.

tuscan-olive-harvest-view

Our busy day harvesting olives comes to an end only after sunset, always following nature’s course. Depending on the size of the olive grove, it may take from one day to an entire week to finish, so we store the harvested pods in plastic boxes, or on the floor of a cool and well ventilated room, until we can take them to the mill for the pressing, but usually no longer than 48 hours.

olives-tuscan-extravirgin-oil

The mills in this area are quite a few and larger farms even have their own. We take our harvest to a very old mill nearby, that uses the traditional “cold pressing” process, to obtain the best expression of the extravirgin olive oil. First, olives are washed in cold water, removing as much leaves as possible. All that’s left is being then crushed together by a giant milestone and stored in stainless steel tins.

olive-harvest-fresh-extravirgin-olive-oil

Now this is what we actually call l’olio novo” (the new oil) here in Tuscany! It’s the freshly squeezed, unstrained and unprocessed extravirgin olive oil, that we all go crazy about. It’s the base ingredient for all our traditional cuisine dishes, and worldwide recommended for its well-known promoting nutrients and overall health benefits. We use it in our kitchens everyday: fresh drizzled over a salad, cooked in most dishes, sometimes as a healthy substitute for butter in cakes and even in the pan, for a healthier frying. But when it comes to the fruity, peppery pungent freshly squeezed olive oil, the first thing that comes to mind is “la fettunta” (the greasy slice): the Tuscan traditional, healthiest and most simple dish ever, and the best way to enjoy to the fullest, the amazing flavor of “the new oil”.

tuscan-extravirgin-olive-oil-fresh

As soon as we bring the “green gold” back home, we just can’t help but drizzle it on a piece of Tuscan toasted white bread (unsalted); just like that, nothing else added, no other confounding ingredients, just our own special extravirgin olive oil… and this is when we realize that once again, all the sweat and the hard working was all worth it!

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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